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Fire board approves audit/ gets feedback

May 23, 2012
By BOB PETCHER, , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

The Fort Myers Beach Board of Fire Commissioners unanimously approved an audited financial statement at their monthly meeting Tuesday, May 15, but not before hearing backlash from proposed action taken at a legislative impasse hearing concerning labor relations and negotiations on May 1.

The independent audit report, presented by Jeff Tuscan of Tuscan & Co., PA, was for fiscal year 2010-11, which ended Sept. 20, 2011. The company was unanimously approved to have their services extended though 2014.

During the Chief's report, FMB acting Chief Darren White referred to the articles from the labor relations and negotiations at the beginning of the month.

"This newly imposed CBA has been sent to the district's labor trade for review and then will be sent to union for ratification," he said.

Once union receives the documents, a decision by them is expected roughly two weeks later, according to the fire official.

During the Union District 3 report, Representative Troy Mesick updated the fire board about two firefighters putting in their resignation to retire since the impasse hearing results. According to Beach Fire records, Capt. Jeff Adams, a 12-year employee at the department, gave management a written notification of resignation. The other employee's name could not be released due to management receiving only a verbal notice.

"It's awful that the pay cuts did go through. We have people who are taking huge pay cuts and some people that are getting raises. It still doesn't make sense to me," Mesick said. "I'm hoping we are looking at management taking pay cuts also, like they have before."

The Union District 3 rep then addressed the fire board about one of the imposed articles: a 28-day pay cycle in the pay matrix.

"I don't know if you realized everything that you voted on that day," said Mesick. "For instance, you voted in a 28-day pay cycle. Right now, if I was mandatory help for overtime today and I had a day off in the 28-day pay cycle, I would not get paid for my overtime. If I took a day off that I earned to go on vacation, we lose pay. I don't think that's fair."

At the impasse hearing, Management Representative Nikhil Joshi of Kunkel Miller & Hament referenced the housing crash in 2008 and the effect it had and still has on the District's ad valorem tax base as well as negative impact it has had on District revenues. The primary articles proposed at impasse involved paid personal leave; holidays; insurance; work schedules/hours of duty and overtime; and the pay matrix.

"Currently, we are in a deficit situation and the projected deficit will only get worse if the status quo doesn't change," he said. "The fund balance has declined by nearly 50 percent over the same time period, down from over $10 million back in 2007 to just over half that today. It will continue to whittle down to just over $1 million or so based on the projections if the status quo is not changed within just a few years."

According to Beach Fire administration, if status quo had remained, the reserves would run out by 2016. Ad valorem taxes remain the main source of revenue, but the millage rate can only reach 3.0 mils by legal standards. This current fiscal year, it stands at 2.5800 mils, a 12 percent increase from the previous year.

Before the pay matrix and cuts were approved by the fire board, fire fighters suffered an eight percent pay cut since 2007, when a reported five percent base pay cut was implemented and an additional three percent was tacked on by FRS.

Joshi stated another financial "overarching issue" involved the current pay system being "unfair" and "inequitable."

"It's very top-heavy. It's created an unhealthy work force," he said.

Union Lawyer Mark Floyd of Mierzwa & Associates discussed the five articles carried to impasse. Union decided to accept the special magistrate proposals, including some PPL and overtime articles, but holiday pay (reduced from 12 to 10 hours) and the pay matrix was another story.

"This pay matrix cannot stand," said Floyd. "We agree there is a need for reductions.

Other savings methods should involve a cost reduction in capital outlay (equipment; management budgeted for a 10 percent increase, but only a four percent increase was needed) and staffing changes (minimizing staffing from 14 to 11 fire fighters)," says Floyd.

Pay equity was another issue. An experienced fire fighter/paramedic should not be paid the same as a newcomer to the District. The pay matrix shows inequity in wages, and the impact was reflected by a list that Union highlighted.

"One fire fighter loses more than $36,000 in base pay. Another fire fighter suffered an additional 38.65 percent in pay," said Floyd. "Another employee gets a 3.81 percent pay increase. It makes no sense whatsoever.

'Morale in this department will plummet. You will become a training ground. As soon as employees can find a better job, they're gone."

Beach resident Fran Myers echoed those sentiments during public comment at the fire board meeting Tuesday, May 15.

"My first thought was what will keep our guys here? Will it be our experienced guys that we have known for all these years that will be leaving? Sound like a forced retirement plan for older guys," she said.

Beach Fire employees have been known for their community-minded spirit. Myers encouraged fire board members to witness the events first hand.

"For years, I have seen their commitment to this community. We all have seen them build the haunted house at Bay Oaks for years and the many hours they have put in at the Easter Egg Hunt and the Christmas Spirit of the Holidays. Believe me, you have a lump in your throat when you see those fire trucks roll out to visit every family on this island that is in need," she said. "To tell the public that this department will go bankrupt is just not true. Please re-think your decision."

Floyd called the fire fighter/paramedic experience at the District an "investment" and quoted the special magistrate when he said "it is unreasonable" to implement the proposed pay matrix.

"In the end, this isn't really about money. Management is more concerned about the mindset, then they are about the money," said Floyd. "They want to impose changes, no matter how much money it saves."



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