SHADY HILLS — Last month, Pasco commissioners set a property tax rate high enough to generate a pot of money they can use to soften the blow of deep budget cuts.
On Tuesday, they got county staff members' recommendations on how to spend that money — everything from keeping four animal control officers to holding onto three parks and recreation workers to keeping all the libraries open five days a week.
But saving all 68 fire and rescue positions on the chopping block could prove the toughest hurdle: That part of the plan hinges on an uncertain union vote.
County administrators told commissioners Tuesday they have pieced together a plan for keeping the 48 firefighting combat positions — 26 of which are filled — plus 20 rescue jobs.
But to do so, they say they need the union to give up a generous form of holiday pay for a year, plus waive a 5 percent wage increase for 2010. Those two measures would save $1.45 million.
Officials say they want union leaders to put the proposals up for a vote before the Sept. 9 budget hearing. But though union leaders are the ones who pitched the holiday pay concession, rank-and-file members aren't necessarily going to go along with it, officials said.
"What we're going to do is put the ball in their court and say, 'Go get the vote,' " said budget director Mike Nurrenbrock.
Union president Ralph Grant did not return a phone message Tuesday.
Nearly all the financing for fire and rescue services must come out of a special municipal taxing district, which assesses property owners only in unincorporated Pasco. A smaller portion of emergency services comes from the countywide general fund.
Hiking the general fund property tax rate gave commissioners a $13 million cushion to help stave off some of the nearly 260 positions that would be cut under the budget. Officials propose using a little more than $1 million of that to keep the 20 filled EMS positions.
Raising the property tax rate on the fire district generated a $2.5 million cushion, more than half of which was eaten up by additional health insurance costs plus the 5 percent merit increase for 2009.
Leftover, however, is enough money to save 20 combat jobs.
Saving the other 28 firefighting positions is the harder part.
Eliminating the holiday pay would save more than $1 million in the fire district fund. By union contract, members get overtime pay for 12 hours on each of the county's 10 holidays — even if they don't work. If they do work, they get additional overtime pay for their shift.
Combining that with a proposal by Chief Anthony Lopinto to delay $435,000 in equipment upgrades would save enough money to restore six filled positions and 22 vacant ones.
Union members have not wanted to give up on their merit increases, citing their low base pay rates in comparison to those of firefighters in surrounding counties.
But county officials are trying to force them to choose between getting their 5 percent raise for 2010 — which would cost $454,808 — or using that money to keep nine positions.
Officials acknowledged Tuesday they were concerned, too, about what Chairman Jack Mariano called an "information void" between the administration and the union.
They said they worried that the union members did not fully understand a union proposal that would give each firefighter an unpaid day off after a certain number of weeks. Nurrenbrock called that idea a "loser" in part because he said it ultimately meant firefighters were losing wages.
Commissioner Ted Schrader said he was concerned that the union might be under the impression that there were other options for saving jobs.
Pasco's fire department in recent years caught up with other departments by requiring that each engine be manned with at least three people: a driver and two firefighters suited up and ready to go. A work force reduction could mean that the county would return to requiring only two firefighters per truck, which means an engine could arrive on scene with only one person suited up.
"If the message isn't clear to them that we're prepared to reduce personnel on the engines, what motivation do they have?" Schrader said.
County Administrator John Gallagher said, "Part of the problem is they think we have money some place."
General fund money can't be used for firefighting services, since residents of cities like New Port Richey, which have their own departments, would be paying for services they don't use. Nearly all that officials are working with, they say, is the one pot of money in the fire district fund.
"There's X amount of money," said Nurrenbrock. "It's either this or that."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.