A state-appointed labor mediator has recommended the County Commission impose a contract on the county's unionized paramedics that could allow immediate privatization of county ambulance service.
The board could decide Aug. 2 to move forward. But action could be delayed until the state resolves a union complaint accusing the county of unfair bargaining tactics.
The mediator's ruling is nevertheless a victory for the commission, which since February has been trying to sign a contract with a private firm to take over the county's Emergency Medical Services Division.
That move has been held up by bargaining with the county's 35 paramedics, who joined a union partly to fight privatization. The local chapter is affiliated with the International Association of Firefighters.
The county declared in May that talks were at an impasse because the paramedics' union refused to discuss privatization. That triggered the state Public Employee Relations Commission to send in Helen G. Hoffman as a special master.
In her report, released Tuesday, Hoffman said the union should negotiate a contract addressing privatization, because the commissioners made it clear they intended to hire Florida Regional Emergency Medical Services.
She suggested the county impose its last contract offer. That would allow privatization but would guarantee all current paramedics jobs with Florida Regional at their current pay.
The paramedics have resisted that offer, saying that the quality of care would decline under a privately run ambulance service and that they would lose state pension benefits.
The commission will decide Aug. 2 whether to accept Hoffman's suggestion, which by state law could then by imposed on the union. The board could reject her report and allow bargaining to continue.
Still to be resolved is a complaint the union filed with the state labor board accusing the county of unfair bargaining. The complaint says the county should negotiate a full contract covering all conditions of employment.
Assistant County Attorney Richard Wesch said he thinks the complaint can be resolved quickly in the county's favor. The union's attorney, Paul Donnelly, has said it could take weeks.
Paramedic Ron Weber said the union was still reviewing the report and its legal options. "We won't roll over and play dead," he said.
The paramedics have sought a full contract, hoping the commission would change its mind about privatization. But board members have shown no signs of doing so, despite receiving petitions with thousands of signatures from residents who oppose privatization.
The board said signing Florida Regional will save the county $800,000 a year in subsidies for its ambulance service.