DUNEDIN — After months of debate, the city is ready to concede that firefighters were correct when they said Dunedin's fire pension ordinance is illegal.
The Florida Division of Retirement agreed with the Dunedin Firefighters Association that the city's proposal to contribute only 75 percent — instead of 100 percent — of future pension reserve money to the firefighters' share plan doesn't mesh with state standards. A share plan is a retirement account in addition to a pension.
Legal wrangling over the ordinance held up $832,000 in state tax credits that the city had figured into its 2012 budget, forcing officials to use reserves to balance the budget.
During a special meeting last week, commissioners gave their unanimous preliminary approval to ordinance "clarifications" that would release the frozen funds. Commissioners are slated to hold a second public hearing and a final vote at Thursday's meeting.
But the battle may not be over: Union officials say the city is trying to push through revised language — complete with a new ordinance number — without sending it back to firefighters for another vote, as required by law.
About a dozen firefighters attended last week's meeting to plead with commissioners to send union and city negotiators back to the bargaining table.
"What they handed us is not a clarification," said union vice president and lead fire negotiator Mark Zipeto. In addition to changing the share plan split, he said, the city replaced the word "will" with "may" in several passages.
"It's changed. Therefore, it goes back to being a new provision, which our firefighters have no voice on. It needs to be ratified," Zipeto said. "As far as we're concerned, bargaining is still open."
At issue is an ordinance passed in June that steers the entire pot of $832,000 in pension reserve money back into the city's pension fund, rather than using a portion of it to establish a new retirement benefit — the share plan — for firefighters.
An official actuarial report, released after negotiations were completed, determined that the city should receive the $832,000 as reimbursement for extra benefits paid out to firefighters since 1999.
Fire union leaders this summer unsuccessfully lobbied the City Commission to reject the ordinance, saying they believed city negotiators misled them into thinking during bargaining that it had already been determined the two parties would evenly split the reserve money.
Last week, firefighters said they have since commissioned a separate actuarial study by the same firm as the city's. That study determined that the city should split the pension money with firefighters, they said.
However, city negotiators dismissed the new findings, saying the studies conflict because the two sides supplied different information to the actuary. While the city simply submitted its ordinance to the actuary, they said, firefighters specifically asked the actuary to calculate based on a scenario in which the two parties split the reserve money.
City negotiators have maintained that they made it clear all along that they were using estimates during bargaining.
"Our position is that we have a valid two-year contract that was reached through negotiations that all agreed on and was ratified by the union and approved by the commission," said lead city negotiator Bruce Haddock. "The state's objection was with the share plan split. So we've changed that."
Commissioners said they couldn't halt last week's first public hearing or vote because the state won't confirm how further delays will affect taxpayers.
"I'm confused enough that I could listen to more," said Mayor Dave Eggers, who has questions about the conflicting actuarial studies. "But at the same time, I don't want to lose the credit that we're due. And if that means passing this ordinance and coming back and reconsidering it at a different time, I'm willing to do that."
Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski said she planned to speak during the coming week with the city's labor attorney. Months ago, she said, the attorney advised commissioners that any fire pension ordinance changes would require that it be negotiated and ratified again.
"And now the same attorneys are telling us that we have more specific direction from the state," Bujalski said. "I see both sides, and I'm very conflicted by it."
Commissioner David Carson lectured both city and union negotiators at last week's meeting. The firefighters, he said, didn't do a good enough job of analyzing their contract during negotiations and asking "what if" questions before ratifying it. On the other hand, he said, the city should have obtained exact numbers during bargaining instead of relying on estimates.
"I think both sides share the reason why we're here today," Carson said. "It took us 14 or 15 months to get here today, and it's just incredible to the lay person, and I can't tell you how disappointed I am."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153.