Tallahassee Firefighters Battle City for Raise

Tallahassee officials and the local firefighters' union have reached an impasse in negotiations over a new contract.

The stalemate in talks is mostly over firefighters' salaries, which union officials argue are well behind other agencies in the state.

The current service contract, signed in 2002, expires Sept. 30.

"The city's offer was insulting to us, especially looking at our fellow police officers and how they were compensated for their services," said Lt. Jarvis Bedford, vice president of the Tallahassee Professional Fire Fighters. "It was very discouraging and to all the guys it was an insult."

City officials declined to discuss union negotiations, but late Monday the City Commission scheduled an executive session on the issue for Wednesday.

The issue seems destined for an arbitrator, who would be called in if the current contract expires before a new one is signed. Ultimately, the fate of a new contract will be in the hands of city commissioners, who could vote to enact a one-year extension of the current contract with the same pay increases and provisions.

Bedford said the firefighters are asking for a 20-percent pay increase spread over the next three years, which would boost the starting salary of firefighters from $31,357 to about $37,628 in 2008. The city's most recent offer, rejected by the union last week, has salary increases of as much as 13.5 percent, but also includes a $320,000 bonus pool that could be used to reward employees.

Bill Behenna, spokesperson for the city, said overall the package would be worth about 17.8 percent more than what firefighters receive currently.

In 2002, the city agreed to boost pay by 17 percent over three years.

"The city cannot emphasize enough how much it values its firefighters, as stewards of the community's safety, and our offer certainly confirmed our commitment to them," Behenna stated in a written statement.

The Fire Department has had an increased role in public safety over the past year, serving as a partner in Leon County's emergency-medical-services system and recently being selected to be a part of the Urban Search and Rescue unit. The Fire Department is also the regional Hazardous Materials Team.

"We feel we deserve above average, but we want to at least be at the average," Bedford said. "We do a lot of different things besides just fighting fires in this community."

But with increasing efforts by the City Commission to tighten city spending, it's not likely the city will change its stance on raises.

The Police Department went through tumultuous negotiations with the city last year, but netted a 21-percent increase in pay over three years.

Travis Oaks, the union's president, said he would like the city to transfer the bonus money into firefighters' salaries. Union officials said the city's starting salary ranks 46th among 64 fire department's in the state. Oaks said that detracts from recruitment efforts as the department seeks to fill vacancies left by retiring employees or firefighters who have left to seek higher-paying jobs.

Behenna said turnover at the Fire Department is "extremely low," and the city has had no problem recruiting new talent to the community.

"The city has taken a hard line and I know they have a tough decision, but the firefighters take care of this city," Oaks said. "It's the commissioners who have to take care of the firefighters and our families."

Distributed by the Associated Press