TAMPA — Back when she was running for mayor, Jane Castor often mentioned that the first year would be challenging. Aside from a fast-tracked budget process, she would have to seal the deal on three separate labor pacts with the city’s three unions representing police, firefighters and blue-collar workers.
Fast forward to her ninth month and Castor’s administration is nearing deals with the police and fire unions while having already reached an agreement with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1464, which represents 1,900 workers who treat the city’s sewage, collect its trash and perform a host of other jobs. That union approved its deal by more than 95 percent of votes cast.
Along the way, her administration, led by chief of staff John Bennett and interim Human Resources Director Kelly Austin, is winning praise from union negotiators.
Stephen Simon, president of the blue-collar union, said the Castor administration worked with him to improve life insurance, add $1 per hour for evening and weekend shifts and guaranteed a $15 an hour minimum wage.
Castor’s three decades as a city employee, working her way from beat cop to police chief, helped, Simon said.
“Being a former police chief and having negotiated on behalf of police — that definitely played a big role. She’s been a city employee,” Simon said.
Over the next two years, all three unions will see a 3 percent pay increase. Starting in Oct. 2021, police and fire will get another 3 percent raise while city workers will net 3.5 percent, according to tentative agreements.
Police and fire unions are close to inking their own agreements. Their negotiations have taken longer as those unions want to form their own health trust to gain more control over their insurance options. The city has agreed in principle to that plan, which should be finalized in the next four to six weeks if negotiations continue move forward, Bennett said.
“It’s been no easy task,” Bennett said. “It’s a journey.”
Initially, the mayor was concerned that having police officers and firefighters leave the city insurance program might leave other city workers vulnerable to higher premiums or deductibles or otherwise weaken their coverage. But after drilling down into the numbers, Castor was persuaded that wouldn’t happen.
“The city is committed to no adverse impacts to benefits,” Bennett said.
What is less clear is what impact might eventually fall on taxpayers. The trust wouldn’t go into effect for a year if it gets final approval from union members and City Council.
With firefighters and police out of the mix, the city will have to renegotiate its contract with its administrator, United Health Care, to cover the smaller and possibly less healthy population of city workers.
Will the insurance giant demand more taxpayer money to administer the city’s health insurance?
“There’s no way to predict until we go into negotiations a year from now,” Bennett said.
The city is self-funded, meaning it pays claims out itself. United Health Care provides logistics and management services.
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International Association of Fire Fighters Local 754 president Joe Greco praised Bennett and the Castor administration for agreeing in principle to allow them to form their own health trust.
“They didn’t have to do that,” Greco said. “They really made the effort.”
Firefighters and police officers grew frustrated in 2018 when health benefits proved to be a stumbling block for final approval of then-mayor Bob Buckhorn’s city budget. “That was the last straw,” Greco said.
They wanted more control over benefits and a say in costs, Greco said.
Police union president Darla Portman didn’t return two phone calls requesting comment.
All three unions backed Castor in her mayoral victory last year over retired banker and philanthropist David Straz. During the primary, the firefighters and city workers unions had supported former City Council member Mike Suarez, but switched to Castor in the runoff.
Bennett cautioned that all the details on the police and fire union contracts haven’t been agreed upon. But Castor’s experience in running the city’s largest department from 2009 to 2015 proved valuable, he said.
“The mayor set the tone of fiscal responsibility and equitable opportunities for all three unions,” he said.
correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the local chapter of the Amalagated Transit Union.