Historic City News spoke with St. Johns County Commissioner Ron Sanchez after lunch yesterday to discuss his impression of Tuesday night’s budget meeting; specifically about the friction between the county and the firefighters union.
We asked Sanchez if he agreed with the assessment that Fire Rescue could have received additional funding from the commission for 2010 — had it not been for the way the union handled negotiations with the county.
Speaking for himself, Sanchez said “I was prepared to vote for 1.3 mills” — the final assessment for fire was only 1.2 mills.
“If they had just brought us something last week” remarked Sanchez “we could have had all of this worked out”. The sticking point was pay raises for firefighters when all other county employees were being told “no raise next year”.
The union wanted assurances from the Board that no firefighter would lose their job if they agreed to work without an increase in pay.
During the meeting there were several emotionally charged moments when speakers addressed the commissioners over their contract, the union’s inability to negotiate with the county, the potential for layoffs and furloughs and their expectation of pay raises in fiscal 2010 — which begins October 1st.
At the last minute during the meeting, Local IAFF 3865 President Mike Carter challenged Sanchez with an inference that pay raises for firefighters might be negotiable. Sanchez said “That was the first time I had heard of that”.
Over the objection of several commissioners, Chairman Cyndi Stevenson called for a break to allow County Attorney Patrick F. McCormack and others to review new documents presented by Carter. “I would look stupid” Stevenson said “if I didn’t at least take a few minutes to look at what Mr. Carter has to offer.”
At the end of the break, McCormack advised the Board that they should not attempt to act on Carter’s proposal without further review and discussion. Commissioner Phil Mays remarked that it would be stupid to think that you could negotiate a union contract in ten minutes.
Sanchez told us that the fire millage last year was also 1.2 mills; however, it was adjusted to 1.06 mills after demands from “Tallahassee”.
We asked Sanchez why he voted against the proposed fire millage. He said, “Because I told everybody in the last meeting and gave my word to a bunch of people that I would not vote for any millage rate that included pay raises for firefighters.”
Sanchez and Mays voted against approval of the fire millage even though the other three commissioners approved the 1.2 mills.
“We are going to have this same problem next year” Sanchez said.
Sanchez says that although he thinks the community benefited in the past, giving credit to volunteer firefighters, he doesn’t believe it’s feasible to find young, able-bodied firefighters today to serve as volunteers.
“The education requirements and cost to maintain certification are too high”, Sanchez said. “You might get some retirees”
Sanchez was a volunteer at St. Augustine Beach back in the early 70’s and he said, “off and on for about 14 years all together”.
He told us that he got his start sitting on a porch at the beach one day when a fire broke out and the Chief asked him “Did you say you wanted to be a firefighter?” Sanchez says he was drafted and went along on the call.
The county department officially became St. Johns County Fire Rescue and moved EMS into the agency in October 1997. Firefighters formed a local union in 1998.