published: Friday, July 20, 2012
Sides very far apart in fire pension talks
By SAMANTHA GHOLAR
SEBRING -- "There's two sides to every story," Assistant City Administrator Bob Hoffman said Thursday morning as he discussed the ongoing drama of the city's fire pension and union matters.
For the past 10 months, the city and fire department have been at odds during collective bargaining, trying to come to an agreement on what to do about employee pension plans.
"We've had some open and frank discussions during collective bargaining. The two sides are very far apart," Hoffman said.
The recent decision to move from a 30-year pension plan to a 401k plan for new hires was decided by city staff. The decision, however, isn't one that fire union members are happy about.
"We don't have a choice; they're going to impose it. Scott (Noethlich) said they are absolutely going to a 401k. Well, that's their issue. Our issue is Chief (Brad) Batz," said Sebring Professional Firefighter Association Local No. 3210 Union President Ross Edmonds.
According to Edmonds, Batz has breached contracts of certain union members. Investigations of four firefighters have been opened by the Sebring Police Department at the request of the city, Edmonds said.
"They sent it over to the police department. Commander (Steve) Carr is doing the investigating, I think. They've never done that. There's never been an internal investigation on any city department that I know of, at least not in this department," Edmonds said.
Edmonds stated that a fellow firefighter came to him with concerns about the investigations and alleged threats of termination and job loss.
"Once that firefighter came back to me and said he was scared, I contacted the IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters) in Washington. I told the council 'You guys are picking on our guys. You're out of control.'" Edmonds said.
Things got even messier when the possibility of shutting down Station 15 on U.S. 27 was raised during the last week's general budget workshop. During the meeting, Batz was advised to do some number crunching and come up with the amount of savings the city would be looking at if Station 15 were to be shut down.
"It's nothing new to us, them threatening to close Station 15. Chief has been saying this for a year. It's just a tactic; they're telling us union guys to calm down. They say they would be closing it down to save money but that's a lie. They're closing it down to get rid of us," Edmonds said. "I think it's a bullying move; to calm us down or to have the union turn on me."
Hoffman addressed Edmonds accusations of bullying Thursday morning.
"The elected bodies decide what level of services the citizens will receive. We have been having some financial issues, but no decisions have been made yet. I talked to Batz this morning and he doesn't even have a number yet. Nothing has been decided," Hoffman said.
Edmonds asked City Finance Director Mike Eastman for information regarding the budget so that it could be sent to IAFF.
"They tried to say I couldn't have it, but Mike gave it to me because he knows the law. Basically what IAFF said is that the city is doing great, so I don't see why they would shut down that station. Or why they need to say that contributions to other organizations like the Boys & Girls Club, which is a great organization, is dependent on our pension numbers. That is a lie. The city has already accepted their pension deal," Edmonds said.
Edmonds' concerns, he says, are not with numbers and money but with Batz and the service provided to the community.
"We keep a boat there (Station 15) for water rescues and stuff. If they close it, we'll be working out of the downtown station. We can't keep a boat there. This is going to be putting people at a higher risk," Edmonds said.
Union members have come to the city council multiple times, according to Edmonds, about the mistreatment of certain firefighters as well as Batz's alleged breaches of their contracts.
"He has his favorites and they've (council) decided to support him, and now the council is sort of stuck in the middle. What I want everyone to know and understand is what they are talking about behind closed doors isn't dollars and cents. It's about us and how to shut us up," Edmonds said.
Edmonds said the recent investigations of members of the fire department have caused difficulties within the fire department, but not between fire and police departments.
"No. Absolutely not, we have no strain between us and the police department. They back us up in the field and they have a chief that supports them. Any strain in any department is within our own department," Edmonds said. "Chief is the seed of most of our problems."
Hoffman has strong feelings about the union members and firefighters and their relationship with Batz.
"I think Chief Batz is one of the best chiefs in a small city fire department in the state of Florida. I am 100 percent behind him and I know that Scott (Noethlich) is, and the city council members. Any problems with him need to be resolved for the better operation of the department," Hoffman said.
Edmonds stated encounters with both Hoffman and Noethlich leads him to believe that the city is only interested in favoring "the good ole boys" rather than doing what is right.
"He (Noethlich) told me to my face 'You better calm down or you're going to get in trouble.' Hoffman told us that we better find a way to work with Chief or we would be in trouble. They aren't trying to help us, that's why the contract is still open; not because of money, but because they want to change it to take out the arbitration discipline and they can't do that unless we agree to change it," Edmonds said.
Hoffman stated that the current freeze for contribution plans has been accepted by the police department but not by the fire department. City staff has decided to begin going through proposals for a defined contribution plan for the fire department 401k plan.
"Contribution pension benefits are not sustainable. It escalates to a point that a city just can not afford and it's not just here, it's all over Florida. There are some cities in California that have declared bankruptcies over this and we do not want to do that," Hoffman said.
The next meeting regarding the tentative general fund budget will be the first public hearing on Sept. 5. The next collective bargaining meeting for firefighter pension will be held Aug. 29.
Hoffman stated that the city has asked both the fire and police departments for basic data and numbers for the budget, which the police department has provided.
"We had to act. We've filled in the pension numbers the best we can and we've got a balanced budget on the fire pension," Hoffman said.
The final budget hearing will take place Sept. 19 at City Hall.
"Hopefully at the next meeting they'll cut this mess out about closing Station 15 down, but we'll see," Edmonds said.
Pension (by: The one...... - 7/21/2012)
Its not about the pension!!!!! LOCAL 3210 Has agreed to the pension, then the city wants to make all kinds of changes to take away our rights as firefighters. We know times are hard, we have not asked for anything new!!! Do you know a one year fireman in Avon Park makes almost $2 more an hour the someone who has been with Sebring over six years? We havent asked for money in four years. I have spent my life serving my community and now people try to make us look bad. HEY CITY why don't you do like every other department in Florida and do your own EMS generate money like every other fire department!!! If Hardee and Desoto county can do it we should be able to!! We are supposed to be the "BEST OF THE BEST" according to Brad Batzs be we are 20 years behind the rest of the state.
crying firefighter ross edmond (by: taxpayer - 7/21/2012)
look mr edmond, stop crying while holding your little water hose. if you dont like it then quit and im sure there are many volunteer firefighters willing to take your place. I hate these crybabies that get paid from my tax dollars. just shut up and do your job. be happy you got a job and stop whining about pensions and free money. and i will say it again, if you dont like it leave and go do some manual labor for a change to collect a paycheck instead of just sitting in the firehouse eating subs waiting for a call.
Same thing in Avon Park (by: Sam Schultz - 7/20/2012)
So everything looks good for now when it comes to the immediate budget, but its 10 to 20 years from now that should have everyone worried. I had to save my money for my retirement and it took me a couple of decades. I planned for this. The Firefighters plan for this. The difference is they are guaranteed a rate of return higher than your savings plan or mine. All at tax payers expense. Negotiate Mr. Firefighter and realize you are lucky to have a job. We all appreciate what you do for us, but no city should be held hostage to a pension.
SCFD (by: stop the whining people! - 7/20/2012)
if you think Batz is the best fire chief you have seen!! oh boy do you live in a turtle shell, you need to start listining to your employees, and they are YOUR EMPLOYEES not batz's. your going to cost the city alot of money in lawsuits. as far as the pension, FF's you need to deal with it, things are bad all over right now. your not getting anymore money. you make over time like crazy. as far as saving money. you will save alot of money just by stopping the medical runs. this is a total waist.
Fire Dept (by: RAR - 7/20/2012)
STOP the nonsense, closing station 15 is ridiculous.
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