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Firefighters' contract negotiations stall in Clearwater

CLEARWATER — Negotiations between the firefighters' union and the city have stalled, leaving firefighters without a contract for the third year in a row.

The union and the city have yet to agree on raises, certification and other bargaining points, leading the city to declare an impasse last week.

The state will appoint an impartial special magistrate to make recommendations on the disputes, which could then go before the City Council for a final decision. Joe Roseto, the city's director of human resources, said the process could take six months.

At odds are the firefighters' yearly step raises, which union president Gerard DeVivo said have been part of the union's contract for decades. Firefighters with good evaluations are entitled to 5 percent automatic raises every year for the first five years and, for 12 years after that, 2.5 percent raises every other year. Those step raises, separate from general raises, continued after the contract expired in 2008.

The step raise program "benefited the employees. It benefited the city," DeVivo said. The city is "paying for that continued experience and knowledge and longevity," he said.

The city has proposed freezing the step raises for two years, instead offering 2.5 percent general raises for firefighters with 17 years with the city or fewer, or bonuses, for more senior firefighters.

Then, in the third year, step raises would be reinstituted under different terms: 5 percent for the first five years, and 2.5 percent for the next seven years. The raises, though, would end with the contract that year, and the union would need to renegotiate them for the next contract.

"In the current economic environment, having any employee group entitled to two raises a year isn't sustainable anymore," Roseto said. "We want to retain a quality workforce, but we have to try to do that within the fiscal restraints we have."

About six years ago, the city negotiated with the police unions to receive similar step raises with "sunset" clauses, as proposed to the firefighters' union. The other city employees' union does not receive step raises.

Over three years of negotiations, the city and fire union have also disagreed over paramedic licensing protocols, overtime and equipment reimbursements. DeVivo said the union has offered many concessions, but that it sometimes feels like the negotiations have devolved into "just passing papers back and forth."

The union, International Association of Firefighters Local 1158, represents about 180 Clearwater firefighters, paramedics, inspectors and lieutenants. The union's last impasse ended in 2008, when the council voted to give firefighters a 1.5 percent bonus instead of a general raise.

"Morale is extremely low," DeVivo said. "The contract has a lot to do with it. These men and women put their lives on the line every day. … They feel like the city just doesn't care."

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Firefighters' contract negotiations stall in Clearwater 04/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 2, 2011 3:33pm]

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