Frustrated firefighters plan to picket City Hall



Contract talks have dragged on for more than a year, and both sides are still far apart.
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published October 6, 2005

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ST. PETERSBURG - As many as 100 firefighters plan to picket this morning outside City Hall, hoping to press officials into accepting a three-year contract with a 15 percent pay raise.

"We're a damn good fire department. We're just not paid that way," said Lt. Ron Kidwell, a member of the union negotiating team.

But city officials say the proposed 5 percent annual pay increase (less than the union initially wanted) is too rich, and talks appear headed to an impasse.

"There's a pretty far spread in the general wage increase," said Michael Connors, internal services administrator.

The demonstration will begin at 9 a.m., when the City Council meets.

The city has offered a three-year deal with a combined pay raise of 9.5 percent. The package would cost taxpayers $3.2-million. The city has also proposed changes to the pension plan allowing for a cost-of-living adjustment for retired firefighters, short of what the union desires.

The sides have been in talks for 17 months, with the contract expiring at the end of the 2004 fiscal year. There have been 24 bargaining sessions, with the next planned for Wednesday.

A 15 percent raise would match the deal that police officers ratified in December after lengthy, contentious talks.

Winnie Newton, president of the local chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said the union had initially sought a 30 percent raise because the 320 members have not had a raise in two years.

At the very least, he added, union members deserve parity with police officers.

Connors, though, said the comparison of firefighters and police officers ends at their duty to provide public safety services. For one, he said, police have a different work environment that can expose them to violence on a daily basis.

Firefighters work 24-hour shifts followed by 48 hours off, whereas police work more traditional shifts. Many firefighters hold second jobs as a result.

Recruitment and retention is not an issue with the fire department, Connors said.

"We had 12 vacancies last year and 93 qualified applicants. There seems to be a fair amount of interest in becoming a St. Petersburg firefighter."

As with many contract negotiations, competing figures are at play:

The union says its research shows that St. Petersburg ranks 16th out of the 19 departments in Pinellas County.

Connors said the overall picture, counting experienced workers, is much different, with St. Petersburg employees earning the most.

"The administration recognizes the fundamental importance of the fire department services to our community," Connors said.

Newton said the reality is that the city views labor groups as a liability, not an asset. The city, he said, is growing, and St. Petersburg firefighters need to be paid well to ensure quality service. Aside from money, he said, the city needs to hire more firefighters to keep up with growth.

If an impasse is declared, as Connors suggests it will, the sides could choose to enter mediation or take their arguments to the City Council.

For as long as the struggle has been waged in St. Petersburg, it pales in comparison to the fight that ensued in Clearwater over the past three years. During one meeting, a firefighter carried an effigy of the city manager with red horns.

Finally approved in May, the contract in Clearwater gave firefighters there a one-time bonus, plus 5 percent annual raises for three years.

[Last modified October 6, 2005, 01:13:15]