DADE CITY — Facing a room jammed with firefighters, county commissioners on Tuesday approved a federal grant that has been linked with testy collective bargaining talks.
The move means the county will hire 18 new firefighters to boost staffing on fire engines and curb overtime. Everyone — including commissioners and the crowd of firefighters — praised the decision.
But the vote doesn't end the bad blood between county officials and the fire union. An ongoing wage dispute could lead to pay and benefit cuts, and firefighters say they're already underpaid compared to nearby departments.
"We're not asking for much," said Patrick Healy, a firefighter-paramedic. "We're asking not to go backwards. We do want the extra people, but not at the expense of our wages."
Officials said implementing the $2.3 million federal SAFER grant is a risk. They delayed doing so for six months because of a union grievance over lost pay raises that could cost the county $2.2 million.
Dropping the grievance was included in a proposed contract crafted after months of collective bargaining. But firefighters voted 216-54 last month to reject the proposal.
The grievance stems from an earlier collective bargaining agreement that includes annual pay raises. Firefighters note the contract remains in effect until another one takes its place. County officials say they didn't budget for those increases in 2011 because union negotiators tentatively agreed to a wage freeze.
Lee Hudson, a captain at the River Ridge fire station, said the county wants to "renege on a contract we all agreed to."
"I think it's deplorable, I really do," he said. "I think you should all be ashamed."
Several firefighters said officials are trying to paint them as greedy. Many said they remained in Pasco County even after being offered better-paying jobs elsewhere.
"We've been painted in the last couple of weeks as we don't care about safety, all we care about is money," said Capt. Shawn Whited. "That's just not true."
If the union prevails in its grievance, county officials are proposing "contingencies" that include savings from a hiring freeze and possible "temporary wage and benefit corrections."
Some firefighters said Tuesday they expect that would be a 10 percent rollback, to make up for two 5 percent raises firefighters received while other county employees' salaries were held flat.
Commissioners approved the grant with hardly any comment and did not discuss possible pay cuts. That essentially punts the wage grievance and related disputes to another day.
Commissioner Ted Schrader said commissioners "put public safety first" by accepting the grant, but he acknowledged there will be ongoing tensions between the union and administrators.
"I don't think we're all going to be singing Kumbaya," he said. "There are going to be disagreements on both sides."