SEMINOLE — Nearly 300 people turned out for a July 15 special hearing where the Seminole City Council made the final decisions regarding the contract between the Seminole Professional Firefighters International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2896 and the city of Seminole. Fire officials say at least 275 citizens attended the hearing.
During last year’s collective bargaining, Local 2896 declared an impasse May 30, 2018, bringing negotiations to a standstill. Their contract expired Sept. 30 and Seminole Fire Rescue employees have worked without one since Oct. 1. Earlier this year, a special magistrate released two decisions siding with the firefighters on all areas of contention, but the city’s negotiating team, led by City Manager Ann Toney-Deal, rejected his decisions.
At the special hearing, the council sided with the city’s negotiating team on one of the major issues — wages. Councilors approved the city’s proposal for a 5 percent increase on base wages effective that evening.
They did not discuss a wage progression plan or slotting system, which the firefighters supported, however.
Councilors Trish Springer and Bob Matthews attempted to address a progression plan later in the evening, after the decision on the 5 percent increase was made, but didn’t garner enough support from other members of council to revisit the topic.
Councilor Chris Burke acknowledged there is a wage “compression issue,” but said the council didn’t have the data to make any bigger decisions regarding pay. The council’s contract decisions only stand through the end of this current fiscal year, he said, suggesting that “since we have to start renegotiating for next year, we address the compression issue for next year’s contract.”
The council also voted with the negotiating team on minimum starting salaries for SFR employees. These new starting salaries are $41,000 for firefighter EMTs, $47,320 for fire medics, $56, 665 for lieutenant EMTs and $63,478 for lieutenant medics.
The union has argued that the salaries of SFR employees lag behind salaries of other departments in the region and similar sized fire districts throughout the state. Many of these other fire departments also offer a wage progression plan, the union said.
During the hearing, the council also decided to cap the firefighter’s pension contribution at 12.5 percent of their pay. Currently, 13.6 percent of their pay goes towards their pension, while the city pays 14.5 percent of their pay into it. Seminole Fire Rescue employees’ contribution to pension is capped at 15 percent. The union requested to cap this contribution at 10 percent, though, indicating that their contribution rate is higher than other local fire departments.
The council also decided on changes to other issues, including holiday leave, vacation accrual and grievance procedures.
During the public comment portion of the hearing, about 15 people, including former members of SFR, residents in the Seminole Fire District and employees of other Pinellas County fire departments, spoke in support of the firefighters.
Susan Ettinger, who said she has worked closely with the fire department for years, told councilors they “have the power to accept the recommendations of the magistrate and right the wrong that has been going on for some time.”
Ron Kinsey, who retired from SFR, said the firefighters “deserve to be treated fairly,” calling “the actions of the city of Seminole leadership, specifically the city manager and other members of city government … borderline unethical.”
The fire department is facing “an all-time low morale issue” with “a high turnover rate,” adding that “their workload has increased and their benefits package has decreased over the past couple of years.”
Several former SFR chiefs also spoke out during the hearing, including George Bessler, who retired from the department in 2013. He told council he joined SFR in 1982 when it was “known as one of the best departments in the Tampa Bay area.” It no longer has this reputation, he said, and he even discouraged his son from applying to Seminole.
When he left SFR in 2013, he retired two years earlier than he had originally planned because he received a job offer at another, smaller department in Pinellas County. Though “it was very hard to leave Seminole,” he accepted the position, which was two ranks lower, because he was offered a 20 percent increase in pay and benefits, he said.
“I believe you are on the council to do what you think is fair and equitable for all city employees,” Bessler said. “You have an easy decision to make.”
The union will vote to accept or reject the council’s decisions.