Letter: Firefighters ready to negotiate

Dear editor:

The Firefighters issued a letter to the county giving them three dates in December to set the ground rules for the upcoming 2011 negotiations session.

The County agreed to meet on December 2, 2010 at 8m to set the ground rules. For the past ten years, we have established these rules specific to how negotiations will occur before we actually start handing proposals across the table, this protects the county and the firefighters from any unfair labor practices and makes level and fair playing field.

The meeting-

The County had no interest in establishing ground rules, nor did they ask for specific rule to be in play, instead they proposed a contract from an obsolete contract (not the current contract we operate under).

As I stated in my letter dated November 2, 2010, addressed to Stacey Stanish, HR Director, we would like to wait until the 2011 CAFR (comprehensive annual financial report) and the 2011 certified taxable value from the Property Appraiser’s office was in before we started discussing the contract articles. Furthermore, I stated we would agree to meet on one of three days I provided them in December of 2010, to establish the ground rules for the 2011 Negotiations session and if the county agrees to meet to establish the ground rules, to respond via E-mail or USPS. The County responded which implied the County was going to the meeting to establish the ground rules for negotiations.

The proposal the county immediately presented a 51 article proposal which would ultimately make the Firefighters of St. Johns County the lowest paid Firefighters in North East FL and ultimately have the lowest level of benefits of Firefighters in North East FL.

History-

This county holds a standard of having the top schools, top amenities comparable to surrounding counties, and the County boasts to be the top in the State, financially and with services offered. We currently have one of the highest paid County Administrators making $189,000 dollars a year (this is what his total compensation is reported to be in my last public information request this year even though his contract is approximately $170,000 dollars). He holds single handedly the single most lucrative severance package topping $500,000 dollars if his employment was severed and paying him for 36 months with health insurance benefits while he is unemployed. Then when Action News CBS 47 wants to do a story on this compensation package, the county provided no comment about the severance package. There are all of these claims of having no money, then the Record runs a story of the county being one of the strongest counties in the State of Florida, and the county is still spending money like they make it. The men and women who serve you day in and day out for 24 hours a day 7 days a week in this fire department are highly desirable employees and it has taken a long time to stop the revolving door of employees here in this county. Prior to 2005 we were very close to, if not, the lowest paid firefighters in NE FL and Jacksonville, was taking a large majority of our quality employees. The county has invested thousands of dollars into training paramedics and now these employees are a shoe in at any ALS (advanced life support requires paramedics) transport/ non-transport fire department. The City of St. Augustine (BLS non-transport) has surpassed us in starting pay over the past three years because of the concessions we made in 2008.

The county signed a three year contract in 2008 with the firefighters, promising the firefighters raises over the period of three years and promised them a cost of living increase if they take this deal along with it being three years in length, after the firefighters conceded to saving the county approximately $1 million dollars in salaries immediately, the county asked for the raises back. Less than 4 months after the contract was signed and active, the county “realized” they could not fund the contract and needed the firefighters to voluntarily forgo the promised raises and the promised cost of living increase. The 200 plus membership voted “no” to voluntarily forgo the promised raises. The cost of living increase then came in at negative .4% saving the county another approximately $50,000 dollars in year two of the contract. We accepted this because we signed this contract in good faith even though the title of the clause was “cost of living increase.” This year, 2010, the county again asked the firefighters to voluntarily forgo the promised raises and again the 200 plus membership voted “no.” Then the “promised” cost of living increase (the major reason we signed the contract in 2008) comes in at positive 2.7% and the county immediately denies they are obligated to pay the cost of living increase. Our story has not changed since 2009 when all of this started and it will not change because we are telling the truth. No fire department in Florida had been asked to voluntarily forgo their contractual pay raise mid contract. This is not to be confused with contract negotiations like we are currently beginning; we were not at the bargaining table because the contract was locked out for three years. Management with sound practices knows this is a golden rule you don’t do because it immediately destroys morale like it did with our department.

Present day-

The county now has hired a self proclaimed “high powered” attorney from Orlando who is costing the tax payers money to negotiate a contract with firefighters all because the county attempted to rescind an agreement they made with the firefighters in 2008 thru 2011. Not only does the county have an expensive attorney from Orlando, the county has three other county department heads who make well over $70,000 dollars a year each and the county attorney to negotiate against the firefighters. I would ask the citizens to see what they are getting for all this money Mr. Mandel is costing the tax payers; he helped Volusia County during an impasse proceeding. Impasse is declared when contract negotiations stall because neither party can agree on certain issues. Mr. Mandel lost an unfair labor practice through the Public Employees Relation Commission (PERC) for Volusia County in this instance. The firefighters then got to negotiate with the county in good faith and received what minimal things the firefighters were asking, and then resulted in the tax payers footing the bill. Having so much money invested in this fire system, in the initial training of employees during orientation, the training of employees from EMT-basic to paramedic to increase the level of service offered by the county, and now the county is going to risk losing such quality employees to other area fire departments does not make logical sense. The county put themselves into this situation by trying to make false promises to the firefighters. I do understand the economic times are rough, but this industry is still growing and hiring in our area because the volunteer departments are transitioned into career fire departments. We are still hiring employees because we are still opening new stations. Plus, 60% of our department has less than 5-6 years on the job, leaving to start over is not risky especially if you are harboring these kinds of working conditions. Why work here, when you can make the same there, and be treated better. The adverse effect of this entire situation does not outweigh the potential benefit of saving dollars. It is going to cost the tax payers the difference they are being told they are saving because you will have to hire new employees, train them to get what just left, and then the effects of losing a seasoned firefighter/paramedic and getting a brand new employee who does not have the experience that just left. Logical reasoning says this is not worth the risk.

We are talking about a contract that has the starting pay at $34,000 dollars in a county with the medium house hold income in 2008 at $67,238 according to (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/12/12109.html). There are less than 50 people in St. Johns County Fire Rescue out of 240 operations rank and file firefighters that make more than $67,000 dollars a year. There are less than 10 people in St. Johns County Fire Rescue who make over $100,000 dollars a year and if they do make that much they have a title similar to chief.

The Firefighters are asking the citizens to contact your commissioner and let them know how they are negatively affecting the high level of professional firefighters you pay for. They are wasting your tax dollars out of spite for a contract (legal document) they signed.

Paul Apfelbach
President
St. Johns County Professional
Firefighters and Paramedics
IAFF Local 3865

Share your thoughts with our readers >>