PINELLAS PARK — No doubt about it, times are tough, with people losing their jobs and houses. And many who still have jobs aren't going to get raises for who knows how long.
That is unless you're a Pinellas Park firefighter. The City Council voted last month to adopt a three-year contract that guarantees them a 3 percent raise each year of the contract.
The firefighter pay increases come at a time when the city was predicting as recently as January that it would be short between $2 million and $3 million in the coming budget year because of the combined effects of the economy, Amendment 1 and dropping property values.
That projected shortfall doesn't tell all of the story. Pinellas Park only managed to fund its current $50.9 million budget by dipping into its savings to the tune of $1.3 million. Those savings are the monies set aside for emergencies, such as hurricanes and other disasters.
Borrowing from the rainy day fund enabled the city to avoid laying off any workers last year, although it has left positions unfilled. But the Fire Department itself took such a hit in staffing that expensive trucks were left sitting because they had no one to staff them full time. The department has since said that it has solved that problem, but the situation raises many questions.
Why would the city choose to give raises rather than hire new people? And how do officials justify guaranteeing increased salaries for three years when many of the taxpayers who finance those increases are themselves without raises or jobs?
Pinellas Park officials asked themselves those same questions during contract negotiations with firefighters, city spokesman Tim Caddell said.
"It was an arduous process," he said.
And negotiators did not give in to all demands, he said. Plus, the firefighters traded raises for other concessions that will save taxpayer money in the long run. Caddell did not have ready access to all firefighter demands or the concessions they had made. The city's Fire Department has 96 employees, and 81 of those of are union members.
Despite the trade-offs, it appears Pinellas Park may be more generous than some other Pinellas cities. Largo, for example, is "considering everything," finance director Kimball Adams said. "Wage freezes. Wage reductions. We're considering it all. Everything is on the table."
Harry Kyne, Seminole's finance director, said, "Except for existing union contracts, I don't think you'd find any city that's guaranteeing anything at this point."
That's certainly the case in Seminole, where fire union contracts are up for negotiation this year. Kyne said no strategy has been discussed yet, but he would expect to see very minor raises, if any, in the new contracts. Three percent, he said, would probably not play well with Seminole residents, considering the current economy.
"I know there's a desire to still not have to cut services. I'm positive there's a desire not to raise taxes," he said. "I think there's also a sensitivity to what's" happening in the world.
One possible solution, Kyne said, is to have a one-year contract. That way, no one gets hurt in the long run. If salaries are frozen but the economy comes back, then a one-year contract allows for the flexibility to be more generous with employees. But if the economy does not bounce back quickly, a one-year contract that granted raises would not tie taxpayers into a long-term situation they could not fund.
Seminole's main negotiations are with the firefighters because the city contracts with the Sheriff's Office for policing services. But Pinellas Park officials also must negotiate with the police union, a process that's beginning now. Historically, Pinellas Park has been fairly even-handed with the fire and police and has then given other employees raises and perks similar to those granted to unionized employees.
If that holds true this year, then Pinellas Park taxpayers could be on the hook for guaranteed raises for all city employees, possibly for the next three years. That would include City Council members, who have automatic raises tied to the amount given to city employees.