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Council rejects fire union's requests

The Seminole City Council votes against extending health coverage to family members of newly hired firefighters and against extra pay for members of a special rescue team.

City Council members have voted against providing health care benefits for the families of any newly hired firefighters.

At a special meeting Wednesday to address sticking points in firefighter contract negotiations, council members also voted against making extra payments to members of the city's technical rescue team, a small group of firefighters who are trained to make difficult rescues.

Most municipalities pay more to their firefighters who are members of their technical rescue team. Clearwater and Pinellas Park do not make extra payments to such firefighters, although Clearwater pays for training.

The city's firefighters have been working without a contract since May. After nine months of negotiations, city staffers and the firefighters union agreed to forgo mediation and let the council decide the matter _ the first time in city history that the group was asked to arbitrate contract negotiations.

Union officials showed council members a chart that showed most municipalities with fire rescue units pay anywhere from 75 percent to full dependent health care coverage. Seminole firefighters get between 50 percent and 75 percent.

"We have all chosen this profession and we love it dearly, but we truly feel health care compensation is one of the most important benefits," said union treasurer Richard Schomp, a lieutenant with the Fire Department.

The city's labor negotiator argued that Seminole firefighters receive more in health benefits than firefighters in other departments.

Seminole firefighters got an average of $4,448 in benefits per employee last year, while the county average was $3,684.

"You are being more than fair in terms of employee and spouse and dependent health care," negotiator Tom Gonzalez told the council.

Council members agreed, voting 5-1 against extending dependent care coverage to new employees. Existing firefighters will continue to receive the benefit.

"I know most of the dependents . . . are working and also have benefit packages," said Mayor Dottie Reeder, who voted with the majority.

City Manager Frank Edmunds said his staff will present the council with a three-year contract for approval at an upcoming council meeting.

A majority of the union's 74 members also must ratify the new contract before it takes effect.

If they vote against the contract, both sides must return to the bargaining table.

Union president Rick Koda said he was disappointed with the decision, but believed the contract would be ratified.

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