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Market directs offer to Clearwater firefighters

The current contract negotiations between the city of Clearwater and the International Association of Fire Fighters union, representing Clearwater's 162 firefighters and paramedics, have been unusually long and difficult. I would like to take this opportunity to push aside the accusations and personal attacks and address the issues.

Clearwater values every fire and rescue employee and respects the unique and critical service they provide. Clearwater has invested nearly $13-million in facilities and equipment since 1999, allowing our fire and rescue personnel to respond more quickly and safely to emergencies. By the fall of 2004, this investment will include two new fire stations, one replacement station, 10 new engines, two new ladder trucks and six new rescue trucks. We have also completely upgraded the personal protective gear for every firefighter and have added 16 firefighters, with eight more to be added upon the completion of Station 51. There is another $8-million in planned improvements, which include a new main fire station and upgraded training facility.

As important as equipment and facilities are to public safety, professional, well-trained staff are even more essential. Therefore, we strive to provide the pay and benefits that it takes to recruit and retain quality employees. The average salary with overtime and allowances for firefighters is $41,200, for paramedics is $46,900 and for fire lieutenants is $61,400. Of particular note are the district chiefs, whose average is about $76,000 per year.

The average schedule is ten 24-hour shifts a month.

The city looks at salaries for a number of local fire departments, including Tampa, Hillsborough County, St. Petersburg, St. Pete Beach, Largo, Pinellas Park, Dunedin, Safety Harbor, Sarasota County, Lakeland and Orlando, to determine competitive pay ranges for fire and rescue personnel. Currently, our firefighters are paid about the average, and our proposal keeps them at the average. Paramedics move from above average to No. 2 of all comparators, and fire lieutenants go from average to above average.

Clearwater's package includes seniority-based salary increases of 5 percent each year for the first five years of service and 2.5 percent every other year for the next 12 years, in addition to any annual cost-of-living adjustments approved in the contract. While Clearwater's long-term objective is to move away from these types of "step" raise plans, we remain willing to accept a "step plan" in order to reach a multi-year agreement.

Decisions regarding our compensation packages are based on the job market. Historically, this approach has worked well. In the past three years, only four firefighters have left the city before retirement to seek other jobs. Currently, we have a waiting list of 150 eligible candidates for the position of firefighter. These are indicators that the city compensation package for firefighters is competitive in the market.

In contrast, we have lost more than 30 police officers during the same period. That was one indicator that the police compensation package needed to be adjusted. In both cases, our decisions have been based on current market conditions.

Our latest offer to the fire union included cost-of-living increases of 2 percent for the current fiscal year and 3 percent for fiscal year 2004/05 in addition to the step increases currently in place. Additional incentives were offered for the more highly competitive paramedic field. Clearwater's proposals to the fire union representatives have been consistent with the local cost of living increase, as measured by the Consumer Price Index figures.

In addition to salary, other benefits include four floating holidays, clothing allowances and additional pay for specialty assignments.

Clearwater fire and rescue personnel enjoy the same generous health benefits as other city employees. Unlike other city employees, both firefighters and police officers can retire with full pension after 20 years, which is 55 percent of their highest five-year salary average. Also, they receive an additional 2.75 percent of this salary for each year of service above 20. Firefighters also receive a state-funded supplemental pension plan that requires no employee contribution. This plan is worth from $86,000 to $169,000 in a lump sum at retirement. This is in addition to their monthly pension.

It is my firm belief that the city has made appropriate compromises and negotiated fairly. We have an obligation to provide a compensation package that will help Clearwater attract and retain a quality workforce while at the same time remaining fiscally responsible to the taxpayers.

If you would like more detailed information about fire and rescue personnel, pay and compensation, and benefits, visit www.myclearwater.com and the information is listed under "News."

Bill Horne, Clearwater city manager

Rehashing judge charges unfair

Re: Magazine judges judge one of worst, story, Oct. 21.

The first function of a newspaper is to print the news. I am concerned that the St. Petersburg Times defines "news" as items that suit your editorial policy and electoral preferences, rather than matters that are of appropriate concern to your readers.

Various allegations were made against Judge Charles Cope while he was on a trip to California. Neither the California courts nor the Florida Judicial Qualifications Committee could establish any truth to the majority of those allegations. Yet you continue to repeat them as though they were fact.

I have known Judge Cope for almost 20 years. I started in practice in Florida as an associate in his law firm before he went on the bench. I had the opportunity to observe his personal and professional behavior on a daily basis. I found him to be a man of the highest integrity and compassion for others, as well as being a savvy and knowledgeable attorney. I was grateful for the years he spent mentoring me and teaching me how law should be practiced.

I am now a board-certified matrimonial attorney and appear before Judge Cope on a regular basis. My respect for him as a person, lawyer and judge cannot be diminished by the efforts of the St. Petersburg Times. Judge Cope's courtroom is run professionally and it is always possible to get hearing times, especially when emergency needs of the client would require it. Judge Cope's judicial demeanor and respect for the litigants who appear before him is first quality. He gives everyone a fair hearing and is extremely knowledgeable of the law.

It is truly fortunate for the citizens of the Sixth Judicial Circuit that they can trust their disputes to a judge who dispenses justice fairly, rather than in the manner your newspaper dispenses "news."

Mary Ellen Borja, Clearwater

Noise only part of airport conflict

I have seen many letters to the editor that state that the people of Feather Sound knew there was an airport there when they bought their homes and they should basically shut up and deal with the airport expansion.

My husband and I have lived in the Feather Sound neighborhood for more than five years now. We were new to Pinellas County when we bought our home, and believe it or not, we did not know the airport was directly behind us. After we moved in, we realized there would be noise from the airport and we have lived with it.

Although noise from the airport is a large part of the complaint many in Feather Sound have, it is not the only complaint we have. We are against the way the entire airport expansion project has been handled from the beginning.

We feel that we were not given notice of what the commissioners wanted to do and feel that we have been disenfranchised by the people we voted for. The fact that no one in Feather Sound was notified of the runway extension is just one example of why we feel the way we do. Also, the fact that the land behind the residents on Tern Lane was sold to Neighborly Senior Services, without anyone being notified of this sale, is another reason we distrust our elected officials. If the commissioners had brought the item to the table, notified everyone impacted and actually listened to our concerns and tried to do something about them, they may have had a little more support than they do now.

Heather Dixon, Feather Sound

Community hurt without Explorers

Re: Police won't revive Explorers post, story, Oct. 24.

I read with some sadness about Largo police Chief Lester Aradi disbanding police Explorer Post 970. While I agree the decision was tough to make, I believe it does a sad disservice to the Largo community.

I was a proud member of that group from 1979-81. During that two-year period, our post was state champion twice. Much of that credit went to the outstanding leaders and instructors of that time: officers Billy Skaggs, Ed Buyers, Robert Hall, Terry Nauman and Michelle Smith. These officers, many now retired, instilled in us pride, integrity, dignity and mutual respect. It was immediately apparent to me at the time that these folks were proud to be our leaders and, more importantly, proud to be members of the Largo Police Department.

The editorial was correct in stating that the Explorer program opens doors to those desiring a career in law enforcement. I am finishing my 17th year in law enforcement and to this day owe much of what I have learned to those great officers. I will never forget my experiences in Largo Explorer Post 970.

Perhaps someday Chief Aradi will revisit this program and perhaps there will be another fine group of dedicated, professional police officers that will step up and offer their knowledge, skills and most importantly, patience, to a group of young adults.

Stephen D. Joiner, Taunton, Mass.

Deputy's gun discharge inexcusable

Re: Deputy accidentally fires gun; injures hand, story, Oct. 28.

Who is the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office trying to kid? For a person to shoot himself in the hand while unloading a Glock semi-automatic pistol, he would have to be a complete moron and therefore incapable of handling any firearm, or he would have to be guilty of gross negligence.

There is no easier or safer firearm to unload than a Glock. The magazine is released with one push by the thumb, and if there remains a round in the chamber, it is extricated by pulling the slide to the rear with the off hand while the handle of the gun is held with the other. Neither hand is ever close to the muzzle. As an added measure of safety, the safety is built into the trigger, making it virtually impossible to fire the gun unless one intends to do so.

This incident, which involves a seven-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office, is highly suspicious and should be investigated by Internal Affairs and also by a civilian review board. My guess is that much more is involved here than a simple careless act, and the taxpayers are going to pay through the nose for medical expenses and time off for the deputy.

Larry Fox, Largo

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