Manatee, Fla.-- Nearly 100 firefighters picketed Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport on Tuesday, protesting the airport's decision last month to outsource the jobs of 12 union firefighters in favor of a private company.
Picketers wore identical red T-shirts and held signs that read "Firefighters Need Your Help," and "Airport Safety Sold to the Highest Bidder." They said the picket line was "informational" only and not meant to disrupt operations or prevent union employees from reaching jobs at the airport.
"Safety at the airport is going to be an issue," said picketer Jim Costa, 50, a firefighter from West Sarasota County and a member of Suncoast Professional Firefighters & Paramedics Local 2546, who questioned which fire units might respond should the airport terminal catch fire. He said employees of Rural/Metro Corp., the private company hired to take over the airport's firefighting chores, are restricted to airplane-related fires.
He disagreed with the position of Fred Piccolo, airport president and chief executive officer, who said he would expect Sarasota County firefighters to respond to such a fire.
Eight speakers also addressed the afternoon meeting of the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority, which had voted to hire Rural/Metro to operate the airport's fire service beginning Oct. 1. They urged the board to reconsider its position and cancel its three-year contract with Rural/Metro to operate the firefighting unit.
They accused commissioners of risking the safety of the public by hiring uncertified firefighters. They predicted Rural/Metro would provide "worse service" without any real cost savings, complained about Piccolo's $500,000 housing allowance and even accused one airport commissioner of lying about his union membership and trying to hide a criminal arrest.
At one point, authority Chairman Paul Sharff told speaker Mervin Kennell, business agent for the firefighters' union, "I think your personal attacks are out of order" and asked him to sit down.
Even a former airport authority commissioner, Jeanne McElmurray of Sarasota, who served three terms from 1973-1985, left her walker to berate commissioners. "This is wrong," she told the board. She complained that contract negotiations with union officials dragged on for months or years but failed to produce a new agreement covering the fire unit.
Piccolo reiterated his position that hiring Rural/Metro would save money and provide better service than the 12 union firefighters and three supervising captains. Piccolo also said that while he did expect cost savings of $325,000 as a result, an equally compelling reason for outsourcing the jobs was that the new company would provide excellent service.
Rural/Metro's operation will have 16 instead of 15 people, including a new fire chief, three supervising captains and 12 firefighters, four of whom are union workers who have been newly hired by Rural/Metro, and will not lose their jobs, he said.
"They're not a bunch of rubes just out of the (fire) academy," Piccolo said.
Firefighters again complained about a clause in Piccolo's employment contract in which the authority agreed to buy a house for Piccolo's use in Sarasota County, costing close to $500,000 with improvements and including an additional $25,000 for furnishings. But Piccolo said his housing arrangement was irrelevant.
Finally, Commissioner Bob Waechter took issue with union members who questioned whether he was really a union firefighter as he had previously stated. They also said he had tried to hide a 1979 burglary arrest.
Waechter pulled out his New York City firefighters' union card to dispatch the first allegation and said he had informed the board of his arrest and had never tried to hide it. He said a judge withheld adjudication and ordered a year's probation in the case.
In other action, the authority passed a 2007 budget showing total revenues of $18.8 million and net expenses of $16.3 million.