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Pasco deputies union and sheriff battles over suspended tuition program

With budget cuts looming, Pasco County Sheriff Bob White has suspended the agency's college tuition reimbursement for employees.

In response, the union that represents his deputies plans to file an unfair labor practice complaint against White.

"He's changed the status quo without bargaining over it," Fraternal Order of Police attorney Stuart Rosenfeldt said Wednesday.

The education assistance program, in place for years, provided reimbursement of tuition and books to Sheriff's Office employees seeking degrees in job-related fields. In the 2006-07 budget year, White's agency spent about $70,000 to help 60 employees pursuing associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees. This year, the total has already reached $52,000, according to agency records.

Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said White halted the program before summer semesters began because it was already over its $50,000 budget.

He characterized the status of it now as "on hold."

"It's just until Oct. 1, at least until we see how the budget's going to play out and we see how much money is out there," Doll said. "We did not want to do this. It was a budgetary decision. We hope to be able to reinstate it."

Doll declined to answer questions about whether the change violated the labor contract, referring those to White's attorney on labor issues, Wayne Helsby.

Helsby did not return a call Wednesday from the Times.

The Fraternal Order of Police does not officially have a contract in place. After months of negotiations followed by more months of stalemate, White ruled in March on the issues that remained at impasse — but the union challenged his authority to do that and filed suit.

The union wanted more rights to appeal disciplinary actions taken against members and had pressed for funding from the County Commission for gap insurance to cover members from the time they retire until Medicare kicks in.

White declined the union on both issues, essentially ruling in his own favor.

The lawsuit is pending.

Even with the contract issue unresolved, Rosenfeldt said White went out of bounds axing the reimbursement program.

The labor contract, as currently drafted, states in Article 18(c):

"During the term of this Agreement, bargaining unit employees shall be afforded educational assistance benefits pursuant to (Pasco Sheriff's Office) General Order 33.7."

"He wants to make a unilateral change to the terms and conditions of employment. He has to bargain about that," Rosenfeldt said. He doesn't have to agree to it, but he has to bargain."

Rosenfeldt said the union also had planned to challenge White's recent decision to eliminate personal use of agency cars by employees. Now, employees can use their vehicles only for work purposes — in other words, no more trips to the beach or the grocery store in Sheriff's Office cars.

But the contract says that individually assigned cars are "a privilege and not a right" and the sheriff reserves the right to remove that privilege.

When made aware of that wording, Rosenfeldt said he would not challenge White on that matter.

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

Pasco deputies union and sheriff battles over suspended tuition program 05/07/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 9, 2008 5:42pm]
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