Publication:NewsHerald; Date:Saturday, September 20, 2003 ; Section:Local and State; Page:11

Firefighters fuming over paltry pay

By Cara New News Herald Writer 522-5114 /

PANAMA CITY After about 500 hours of training and a barrage of physical and written exams, a first-year Panama City firefighter made a baseline salary of $22,198.76 last year.

Fire Engineer Mike Cassani and the 46 other firefighters and engineers in Bay County Professional Firefighters Local 3216 say thatís not enough.

The union, which includes roughly 89 percent of the cityís firefighters and engineers, is in negotiations with the city over salary and insurance.

Cassani said the cityís starting pay is much lower than in cities of comparable size, and it is causing high turnover and low morale.

Firefighters and engineers are the lowest two ranks in the fire department, responsible for riding on and driving the truck, respectively. An engineer can be promoted to lieu- tenant, then captain, battalion chief and on up to fire chief.

Cassani cited the South Walton County fire district, which negotiated a pay raise this year, and Parker, whose city council is proposing a pay raise for its department on Tuesday. He said both are communities of comparable size which will have, or are proposed to have, 2003 starting firefighter salaries of $26,394 and $25,800 respectively.

Parker Fire Chief Andrew Kelly said Parkerís salary proposal would bring a first-year firefighterís hourly wage up to $8.27, a 25 percent increase designed to match Callawayís hourly rate. Before the proposed increase Parkerís starting annual salary was a little lower than Panama Cityís.

"We had a tremendous amount of turnover, and weíre unable to keep paid firemen because we are not paying them the current salary paid by other cityís in the Bay County area," Kelly said. "The government decided this was the right thing to do."

Cassani said the city was plagued with the same turnover problems and estimated that eight men would leave the department if pay issues were not resolved.

Panama Cityís assistant chief of operations, Gary Wells, said he hadnít noticed anything out of the ordinary in terms of turnover and morale over the last several years. He said it is typical for morale to be lower during negotiations.

"You have to compare apples to apples," Wells said.

"Parker pays no overtime, and we have billed in overtime every month. We have more vacation and sick leave. They also have no rank structure. Engineers in Panama City make much more than in Parker, so there is a lot of potential for upward movement." He said while other departments in Northwest Florida may have higher starting salaries, comparisons have shown that Panama Cityís engineer salaries are competitive.

The cityís engineer salaries now range from $32,707 to $42,035 while according to pay tables provided by Cassani, South Waltonís equivalent rank (sergeant) will make $28,534 to $37,057 after their raise. Parkerís chief will make $28,483 if the proposed raise passes.

The unionís first proposal in early summer was an 11 percent pay increase for firefighters and a 3.5 percent increase for engineers. The city responded with a 2.5 percent firefighter increase and a 1.5 percent engineer increase on Sept. 3.

Cassani said he hoped the negotiations would not reach an impasse on Thursday, when the union and the city return to the negotiating table. That is six days before the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year.

An impasse would bring in mediators, potentially costing the city and fire department a few thousand dollars each, and also could mean picketing at City Hall, Cassani said.

Cassani said the union is so active now because of Human Resources Director Rodney Dobbinsí record as a "union buster" and its "distrust" of City Manager Ken Hammons.

Both Hammons and Dobbins would not comment on the negotiations, which they said they preferred to handle "in good faith" at the table rather than through the news media.

"They just reject our proposals and stall until it gets down to the wire, and then we always have to settle for (the raises) the city got," Cassani said.

Cassani said he expects city employees will get about a 3.5 percent cost of living raise this year.

"The rest of the city (employees) got a 4.5 percent increase last year, but these guys (in the fire department) have been so low-paid for so long, we have to do something to bring it up," he added.

Insurance is another contentious issue for the union. The city recently proposed to amend Article 27 so that a single employee would pay 39.77 percent of the premium. Single employees now pay none of the premium.

"We donít want to fight with the city," Cassani said. "If they would just work with us and do right by their firefighters, the union would go away."