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8/20/2009

News

Hosed, again
Firefighters face layoffs while other city employees get raises

 

‘You made me a fool.”

Steve Clelland is seething. The president of the Orlando Professional Firefighters, IAFF Local 1365, is between meetings with city commissioners and recounting his interactions with city officials over the phone to a reporter. The city’s negotiations with Clelland’s union have dragged on for four contentious months, but now, Clelland says, the city has taken its brand of hardball too far. “It feels politically personal,” he says. “It’s either very politically personal or it’s incompetence at a grand scale.”

As this newspaper reported [“Hosed,” June 11], in early May the Dyer administration summoned 46 firefighters to a training facility on Primrose Avenue and informed them that, unless something changed – the city is staring down a $40 million deficit – they’d all lose their jobs come October. These firefighters, many of whom had only recently joined the department, were pawns in a larger chess match: The city wanted to force the fire and police unions to reopen the contracts that they had agreed to less than a year earlier, in October 2008. If the unions weren’t willing to give up the pay raises and benefits that the city signed off on last year, massive cuts were coming.

Those cuts, firefighters say, will put lives in danger. If they go through as planned, the eight rescue units that back up the city-contracted ambulance service will go offline. Those units transport 500 people to emergency rooms every year.

Over the last two months, the city’s situation has improved significantly. One hundred sixty-eight city workers – though not cops or firefighters – took voluntary buyouts, under which the departing employees received four months of severance pay and continuing health care. (Some, though it’s not clear how many, have since returned as part-time workers; other vacated positions will be filled eventually.) Those cuts were sufficient to alleviate the layoff threats to two city unions, the SEIU and the LIU. Meanwhile, the Orlando Police Department received $3 million in federal stimulus money. Coupled with the 52 planned civilian cuts and some other fat-trimming, that’s enough to avoid taking uniforms off the street.

That leaves the firefighters. In July, the firefighters assented to the city’s demands and agreed to renegotiate their contract with the city. The city also agreed to the firefighters’ demand that, if they couldn’t reach an agreement, the existing contract would remain in effect rather than going into an impasse and arbitration.

On Aug. 4, Clelland and union officials met with city chief administration officer Byron Brooks to begin talks. Clelland went into the deal ready to give up raises, educational reimbursements, physicals and half of the department’s uniform allowances. That would save $2 million, Clelland says – or about half of the $4.3 million the city wanted in concessions from his union. The rest could come from a federal grant – which the city and union are still working to get.

Going into the meeting, the city and union weren’t so far apart. But when he found out that his union was the only one still facing layoffs and cuts, the negotiations blew up.

“It is unconscionable to expect the firefighters to [accept] cuts in pay and benefits while every other bargaining unit receives their full raise and benefits next year,” Clelland wrote in an angry Aug. 5 letter to city commissioners. “Orlando firefighters received the same raises just a few months ago as every other employee in the city did. We were told numerous times that all employees would be required to take cuts in pay and benefits. … Like much of this process, the truth, facts and honesty seems to have lost its way, and tricks and deception seem to be the rule now.”

Clelland thinks it’s personal. His union, after all, made the most noise when the city first threatened layoffs. His union first pointed out the fact that the city has $105 million in untapped reserve money, and raised the idea that the city’s reluctance to use that money was tied to its $1.8 billion venues plan.

Then again, his union was also the first – and as it turns out, the only – one to agree to renegotiate its contract. So from Clelland’s perspective, the city is punishing the only union that played ball, rather than ask for a smaller, shared sacrifice from all four unions.

The city says it’s not that simple. All of the unions gave up things, says city spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh. More importantly, unlike the SEIU and LIU, the cops and firefighters unions declined the city’s buyout offers. “Each union has handled it differently,” she says. Also, other departments’ budgets have decreased in recent years, while the cops’ and firefighters’ kept rising. “We don’t want to be in this position,” Allebaugh says.

Clelland says that his firefighters never expected raises this year. But with no other union taking a hit – they won’t even lose their raises – the firefighters simply won’t sign off on any changes to their contract.

“I can’t get them to vote for this,” Clelland says of his firefighters. “They’ll vote it down. I can’t win it. I can’t solve [the city’s] problem.”

If the stalemate continues, the city council will have to decide in the next two months whether they want to let 46 firefighters go or face an ever more chaotic budget mess. That’s a decision no politician wants.

jbillman@orlandoweekly.com
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