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As police union counts spoils with Mayor Foster as champion, fire union struggles to gain ground

ST. PETERSBURG — It's time for the city to renegotiate its contract with firefighters, but talks don't seem nearly as cordial as they were for the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association.

The police union, which had its contract ratified unanimously by the City Council two weeks ago, committed money and volunteers to help Mayor Bill Foster win office last year. The firefighters union endorsed rival Kathleen Ford.

While the police scored major coups that were supported by Foster — domestic benefits, more expensive ballistic vests, take-home cars and a more expansive chase policy — the fire union has struggled to find common ground with the rookie mayor.

As the Sept. 30 contract expiration date nears, major issues that divide the city and its 278 firefighters and paramedics remain, raising doubts they will be resolved in time.

The tense talks make the role of politics hard to ignore in this latest round of city-union negotiations.

"That's just a human reaction," said Ford, who lost the race to Foster. "It's easy to believe there is some retaliation."

Foster insists that he's treating the unions equally. He said he campaigned on many of the same issues that overlapped with what the police union wanted. Past political support isn't influencing his approach with firefighters, he said.

"It has nothing to do with my willingness to negotiate in good faith," Foster said. "But the other side has to be willing to negotiate in good faith."

Foster named two major sticking points: drug testing and mandatory physicals.

Foster is pushing for mandatory random drug testing a year after a plastic bag of cocaine was discovered in a washing machine at the Lake Maggiore Station. A criminal investigation is still open, said police spokesman Bill Proffitt, but a second investigation by the Police Department's internal affairs division was inconclusive.

Two of the station's firefighters volunteered to be drug tested, but they weren't because the union opposed it, said James Wimberly Jr., the assistant fire chief of operations.

"So we did not move forward with the investigation," Wimberly said. "We don't want the public to think our firefighters deal or use drugs. This has heightened our concerns that this perception is out there. We can help eliminate that perception with random testing."

Foster sides with his fire chiefs over the union's objections. The police union, he notes, has agreed to random testing.

"(Fire union leaders) will give me a dozen reasons why drug testing is unfair," said Foster. "If they're worried about it, give me a cup. I'll do it, too. It's no big deal, unless you have something to hide."

But Winthrop Newton, who leads St. Petersburg's firefighters union, said Foster and the administration are using drug testing as a smokescreen to distract from other issues.

"There isn't a perception with the public that the firefighters have a drug problem," Newton said. "Maybe so back when this happened, but if the administration is rehashing it, maybe they're the ones who are keeping the perception alive."

Tampa also doesn't allow its 600 union members to be randomly drug tested. Neither do firefighters in Clearwater or New Port Richey. Instead, they and St. Petersburg's firefighters have agreed to drug testing if there's "reasonable suspicion" of a problem.

That threshold is met, according to St. Petersburg's contract, if the firefighter's immediate supervisor and the fire chief or his designee can make observations or assumptions that the employee is using drugs.

Foster said that's an impossible standard to meet. But Newton, who is the brother of City Council member Wengay Newton, said the city doesn't have a good enough reason to warrant a change in drug testing. If the union does agree to mandatory testing, it should be compensated for it, Newton said, a stance that was also supported by the unions in Tampa and Clearwater.

However, those firefighter unions do require their members to get mandatory physicals, as does St. Petersburg's police union.

Foster said there's no reason why firefighters, who need to be in top physical shape to perform their duties, shouldn't do the same.

"People may laugh that it's me, the fat mayor, who is asking this," he said. "But I don't have to save anyone from a burning car or building. I need to know they won't stroke out when they need to do that as part of their job."

Newton said his membership opposes physicals because they're viewed as a way to gather information on employees. Most members agree to voluntary physicals anyway, he said.

"Physicals don't guarantee performance," Newton said. "They get information that can be used so the city doesn't have to pay out workers' compensation."

Newton and Foster said that these two issues were major sticking points and neither seemed inclined to compromise. The division is making it harder to focus on more substantive issues such as equipment, staffing and compensation.

Newton said he's still hoping he can sway Foster and that political differences can be forgotten.

"I'd like to believe he'll be everyone's mayor and address our issues," Newton said. "But that remains to be seen."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: East Lake Fire and Rescue does have a mandatory random drug policy. A story about St. Petersburg's fire union negotiations stated otherwise.

As police union counts spoils with Mayor Foster as champion, fire union struggles to gain ground 09/22/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 22, 2010 4:46pm]

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