SAFETY HARBOR — City commissioners say this small town, population 17,800, and its firefighters union are like one big happy family.
But like most families, disagreements arise and this time it was about money.
At a packed meeting Monday night, the City Commission conducted an impasse hearing and ultimately sided with management on a disagreement with the firefighters union over how loyalty should be rewarded. The negotiators had already agreed on 36 of 37 contract issues.
The city wants to reward loyal long-term employees with additional time off in lieu of the current longevity pay. The firefighters would prefer the cash.
"Sometimes it's hard for us to get the time off," said negotiating agent John Little, president of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 2267.
Under the union proposal, firefighters would receive between $750 and $1,650 per year depending on length of continuous employment. That would cost the city about $28,000 for the 25 firefighters Little represents — or nearly $140,000 if the city extended the monetary benefit to all employees, as some had suggested.
City Manager Matt Spoor reminded commissioners the town was strapped for cash.
"Revenues over the last three years didn't meet expenditures," he said, "and we're anticipating the same thing for the fourth year."
The budget for the current fiscal year projects a deficit of more than $900,000, which means the city must dip into its reserves. In September, commissioners voted to raise the tax rate from $3.0674 per $1,000 in taxable property value to $3.3808 to try to slow the hemorrhage.
The city's proposal rewards firefighters with five to 15 years of continuous employment with an additional 12 hours off a year; 16 years or more would warrant 24 hours off per year. In firefighter terms, that's a half shift and a full shift.
The proposal would have a benefit of about $11,600 to the firefighters without costing the city money.
Dennis Magee, a former member of the code enforcement board, spoke in favor of the union, suggesting firefighters who risk their lives should be treated differently from nonunion city employees.
Eric Davis, a sanitation truck driver for the city and long-term employee, said he was "more than insulted" by Magee's comments, stating all employees provide valuable services.
"I have a family to support as well," he said.
Vice Mayor Joe Ayoub stressed the importance of fiscal responsibility.
He cited recent cuts in education, travel and street repaving projects as well as money the city gives to the museum and programs to help the hungry and poor.
"Everyone's in the red, everyone's cutting," he said.
Commissioner Mary Lynda Williams thanked the firefighters for resuscitating her husband on numerous occasions but said, "If I can't give (the cash benefit) to everyone, it's not fair. Times are tough."
And Commissioner Nina Bandoni said she worried that to single out firefighters for longevity pay would "create the wrong kind of message for the family atmosphere you've helped to create."
Mayor Andy Steingold said the "timing couldn't be worse."
He offered a compromise in which the commission would double the proposed time off for longevity.
"Does it sound sweet? Or does it just sound unmanageable?" asked Commissioner Nancy Besore, trying to see if firefighters would bite.
But Fire Chief Joe Accetta said the crowded leave calendar was already 80 percent full for the year. And commissioners unanimously agreed with management's recommendation.
Now the contract goes to the union for ratification.
Little said he understood the city's position.
"It's not like we're going to get out of the sandbox and go home," he said.