By Michael Salerno
For Hometown News
PORT ORANGE -- After years of contractual issues between city leaders and firefighters, the city has now finalized a labor contract with the fire union that lasts until September 2014.
Both the City Council and the Port Orange Professional Firefighters Association Local 3118 approved the new contract, which took effect last week. Before the contract was approved, the city's firefighters worked under a status quo collective bargaining agreement that expired in 2008.
"We are pleased to have a contract in place," City Manager Ken Parker said.
The new contract significantly reduces benefits for new hires through changes to vacation leave, bereavement leave and holiday pay, and the elimination of cost-of-living adjustments, insurance supplements and the Deferred Retirement Option Program for new hires, Mr. Parker said. Also, fire department employees can no longer sell back unused sick leave on an annual basis, he added.
The new contract also requires firefighters to contribute 8 percent of their salary into their own pensions. Firefighters, who contributed only a half-percent of their salary under the previous contract, asked city staff on several occasions if they could pay more money into their pensions as a way to reduce fire pension debt, but city leaders rejected those proposals.
Although the union ratified the contract last month, its president Mark Vroman e-mailed Mr. Parker requesting the city delay approval of the contract due to two pending arbitration issues, which he felt would lead some union members to change their positions on the contract.
City Attorney Margaret Roberts clarified the arbitration cases challenge changes related to pensions and cost-of-living adjustments adopted by the City Council in September. Some of those changes -- which city staff previously said would reduce fire pension debt by $2 million -- included raising the retirement age to 52 with 25 years of credited service or 55 with 10 years of credited service and changing the definition of salary to mean only base pay.
City Council members believed the contract with the fire union needed to be ratified as soon as possible, especially as a means of reducing overtime in the fire department by hiring nine new full-time firefighters.
"We fought long and hard for this," Councilman Bob Ford said. "It is time to put the struggle behind us for a while. Later we can address some of the continuing issues, but, for right now, I'm ready to move forward with approving this contract."
Mr. Ford, along with Vice Mayor Don Burnette and freshman councilman Drew Bastian, said hiring new firefighters must be a priority because the issue of overtime has a human cost that goes with the heavy financial burden by staffing firefighters for longer hours.
"We're not doing the guys any favors by working them to death," said Mr. Bastian, a retired firefighter. He added three more vacant positions in the department are likely in the new year as longtime employees plan to retire.
Following the ratification of the contract, Mr. Parker sent an e-mail to public safety department staff authorizing them to proceed with the hiring of nine full-time firefighters.
Ken Burgman, deputy director of fire services, told city leaders at a recent meeting he intends to train existing part-time reserve officers to fill some of the open positions.
"Within a week I could have them prepared and ready to go," Mr. Burgman said. "It depends on how hard they want to work, and I'm pretty sure right now they'll work as hard as I push them."