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Firefighter talks stick on pay issue

On paper, Hernando County firefighters and the county administration appear only $37,000 apart in salary negotiations.

But a 90-minute negotiating session Friday revealed a wider chasm between the sides.

Union representatives sought a pay scale that gives lieutenants consistently higher pay than lower-ranking firefighters. They wanted financial incentives for longevity with the department. Perhaps most important, they asked for near parity with Spring Hill firefighters, who recently got raises of at least $5,000.

"The market is across the street," Lt. Bobby Rae told the administration's negotiating team.

Chief Mike Nickerson said he wanted to meet the demands, but realities tied his hands.

Paramedics _ not lieutenants _ are in high demand, Nickerson told the union, and their salaries must be most competitive. As for matching Spring Hill's lucrative pay plan, he said, the money simply does not exist.

"Give us a counterproposal," Nickerson urged the union representatives. "We'll try to sell it to the County Commission."

Rae noted the rules of negotiation forbid the union from revising its entire proposal upward to come closer to the Spring Hill pay schedule. He said he probably would resubmit the union's original proposal with a few changes.

The union originally called for 6 percent raises for paramedics, with larger raises going to lieutenants and to entry-level firefighters. Overall, it asked for an average 8.7 percent raise.

In its offer, the administration recommended slightly smaller raises than the union requested for the lieutenants and entry-level firefighters, pumping the difference into paramedic pay. Overall, it offered an average 7.5 percent raise, with a starting firefighter-EMT earning $25,524 and a starting firefighter-paramedic making $32,000.

County personnel director Barbara Dupre said her department compared county salaries to similar markets and made a competitive proposal.

"This reflects what the market is paying," Dupre said. "It's not quite what Spring Hill is paying, but Spring Hill is leading the market right now in like-sized populations."

Nickerson said if firefighters wanted to earn more, they could become paramedics and get the accompanying salary bump. He offered to pay the full cost of paramedic classes, including prerequisites, for any employee who wanted to go that route.

Lt. Tony Noble said pay higher than the county offers probably will be the only way the fire district will keep its paramedics.

Four left in recent months, and another six plan to leave by January, he said. At least seven spots are open, and applicants are few and far between. Mandatory overtime and other operational problems harm morale, which does not help the retention effort, he said.

He also argued that firefighters have trouble accepting pay so much lower than the district "across the street" when Hernando Fire-Rescue chiefs earn more than their Spring Hill counterparts.

"The problem is, your Indians are running off, and that's what we're trying to control," Noble said.

Nickerson asked the union to submit a new proposal by Tuesday, and said County Administrator Paul McIntosh will decide whether to accept it.

The union's full contract comes up for renegotiation next year.

_ Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solocheksptimes.com.

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