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Firefighters gear up for county impasse hearing

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of March 12, 2015)

Nasty disputes festering for years between the county’s stop staffers and the firefighters’ union are about to finally be aired, with the Board of County Commissioners sitting as the court of last resort on March 20.

Unable to strike a compromise during the lengthy, prescribed ritual of negotiations and mediation since declaring impasse last May, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 2201 will now publicly appeal directly to the county’s elected officials to address unresolved issues about wages, benefits and safety concerns related to working and living conditions at fire stations.

Since the parties appeared before a special magistrate in Orlando in October and the magistrate ruled in December, firefighters have been prohibited from directly lobbying commissioners on the topics of the impasse. But the commissioners have surely seen news reports about career firefighters testing positive for toxic mold in their blood.

The county recently completed some major roof repairs and has replaced some of the oldest and worst vehicles.

Millions of dollars more in renovations and possibly a replacement fire station are on the horizon, necessitating a double-digit increase this past fall in the Emergency Services District property tax millage.

Firefighters who have lived one-third of their lives amongst moldy, musty conditions and rat infestations say it’s too little, too late.

County Administrator Joe Baird addressed the firefighters’ complaints about the stations in a Feb. 5 memo to the Board of County Commissioners setting out his recommendations for resolving the impasse. The tone of Baird’s memo reveals the animosity that’s built up between firefighters and top county staffers over nearly two decades.

“Local 2201 knows that the County is addressing the issues that have resulted from the County having to place capital improvements on hold during the Great Recession, including the County increasing the Emergency Services Fund taxes by 15.5 percent in Fiscal Year 2013-14, in large part, to kick-start fire-rescue vehicle purchases and capital improvements. However, Local 2201 ignores the County’s efforts as they do not fit within Local 2201’s narrative that the County Administration and BCC do not care about the employees’ health and safety,” Baird wrote.

“The County has no doubt that Local 2201 will continue to sensationalize its ‘concerns’ both before and during the hearing before the BCC. The County will set the record straight at the BCC hearing,” Baird said.

On the topic of wage increases and the phased-in reinstatement of a “step” or longevity plan for the fire department, Baird also takes a hard line.

“Local 2201 bargaining unit employees have had more favorable treatment than the rest of the County employees. This did not only extend to pay.”

The impasse hearing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Friday, March 20 at the Indian River County Administration Complex, Building A, commission chambers.