Pasco could soon hire 18 new firefighters using a $2.3 million federal grant, but the move is linked to an ongoing union dispute that could mean temporary pay cuts for existing staffers.
The county received the two-year grant in July from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. But administrators delayed hiring the new employees because of a grievance filed by the union over lost wage increases. That dispute 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.
Now administrators have a backup plan that county commissioners will consider at their meeting Tuesday in Dade City.
"We had worked really hard to try and reach an agreement," said Michele Baker, the chief assistant county administrator. "We put our best deal on the table. They said no thank you."
The proposal calls for hiring the 18 new firefighters to help reduce overtime costs and ensure trucks have three staffers on each call. There would be no obligation to keep those positions when the grant expires in a little less than two years.
To plan for an adverse ruling on the wage grievance, the county is banking savings from a hiring freeze that began in August. The county also will not fill nine new positions authorized in the current budget. Savings from those moves total roughly $1 million.
There's also a more controversial move: Negotiating "temporary wage and benefit corrections" during the next round of collective bargaining. That could involve a one-time or permanent salary cut, or changes to benefits that reduce county costs. Baker said officials are still crunching numbers for various proposals.
Because of a clause in their union contract, firefighters received 5 percent raises in 2008 and 2010. Other county employees have had frozen salaries for five years.
"We don't want to penalize anyone," she said. "This isn't about punishing, it's about finding money where there's no money."
In a memo to commissioners, Baker said the "recommendation puts safety first."
That characterization has many firefighters steaming.
"We take personal offense when they insinuate that our guys don't put safety first," said Joe Russo, vice president of the Pasco firefighters union. "We're the guys that put it all on the line to keep people safe."
Many of his colleagues are upset that administrators included a list of firefighters' salaries in the commission agenda on the county website. The list shows 45 staffers who earned more than $80,000 in 2011 and is meant to bolster the claim that Pasco's salaries are competitive with comparable agencies.
Russo said the union has data from other departments that prove otherwise. "We honestly believe that we are not comparable and competitive with other places," he said.
Baker said it's difficult to compare Pasco's pay scale with other agencies because of differences in base pay, overtime policies and other incentives.
Officials had originally planned to use reserves to extend the grant — and keep the new firefighter jobs — past the original two-year commitment.
"That still could happen if the wage grievance goes away," Baker said.
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.