ST. PETERSBURG — Fire Chief Jim Large is tightening a department policy that has allowed firefighters to receive salaries and benefits for work they did not perform.
Large released on Wednesday a draft copy of the policy, which outlines rules firefighters must follow when they cover for each other.
The policy would explicitly ban shift trades for cash and swaps made to allow a firefighter to work a second job. It also limits the number of hours a firefighter can use or owe from 480 to 240.
The changes follow a Tampa Bay Times story Sunday that detailed how firefighters — with little oversight — negotiated cash payments with their replacements, bartered goods or services, or simply promised to work later for them for more than 58,000 hours over a two-year period.
No other city workers receive pay and benefits for work performed by others. Firefighters are allowed to do this under an exception in federal labor laws.
The Times found that a few firefighters retired owing colleagues hundreds of hours, while many current firefighters have not repaid hundreds of hours equalling months of work.
The proposed changes are being reviewed by lawyers and are not yet final, said City Attorney John Wolfe.
After defending the old policy for eight months, Large declined to explain why he made the changes. He criticized the Sunday story in a letter to the paper.
"Your questions brought forth the noted adage that perception is worse than fact," he said. "The additional language should serve to better define our exchange of duty practice and add a payback requirement making it clear to any reader."
Reporters started asking questions about the swap practice in March. Four months later, Large removed a reference to cash swaps from a form that firefighters fill out to trade shifts. He did not, however, insert any language that banned cash trades like policies in Tampa and Miami.
As recently as Dec. 3, Large said he would not ban cash trades in writing and repeatedly stressed that the practice did not cost taxpayers.
"Since there is nothing illegal, we did not get into banning anything," Large wrote to a reporter in an email. "Not sure why other cities banned it."
That changed Wednesday.
"Exchange of Duty Time repayment shall be in time only between the original two parties," the new policy states. "No other method of repayment is allowed."
In addition, the new policy also allows firefighters to donate time for colleagues enduring hardships and warns that firefighters could face discipline for abusing the system.
With the help of the swap policy, many firefighters work other jobs or run their own companies because of their staggered schedule. The Times found that the department's 310 firefighters made more than 3,500 shift trades between March 2011 and March 2013.
Large knew for nearly four years that the old policy could cause problems. City lawyers and an assistant fire chief urged him to eliminate cash swaps in 2010.
Council member Leslie Curran called the proposed changes a good start, saying: "It's a shame that it took a review by the newspaper when the legal department knew about it."
"The absolute prohibition on cash swap is a very good thing," said council member Charlie Gerdes. "I still think the Human Resources department needs to address accrued pension time."
The story also sparked outrage in the community.
Scott Wagman, a businessman and former mayoral candidate, called the exchange policy a "flagrant malpractice" and called for changes.
"St. Petersburg has been proud of its history of a lack of scandals in government unlike Hillsborough County," Wagman wrote to the Times. "This firefighter pay issue has the potential to besmirch that record."
One firefighter's wife called the story "a bunch of garbage."
Lisa Schumm, wife of 19-year firefighter Chad Schumm, said the exchange policy is not a waste of taxpayer money. First responders earn their pay, benefits and pensions, she added.
"A lot of the fire fighter/paramedics do have second jobs, but for some it is necessary just to keep up with the cost of living," Schumm wrote.
She added: "The public has a love-hate relationship with the fire and police dept. This should not be."