LAND O' LAKES - For 12 years as Pasco's fire chief, Tony Lopinto held his tongue and toed the company line when he thought his firefighters were being treated unfairly by the administration.
Now a year into his retirement, Lopinto jumped feet-first into the controversy over County Administrator Michele Baker's first budget, which recommends giving firefighters a 1.5-percent pay raise when all other county employees would get 3 percent.
"The vendettas need to go away," he said. "The strong-arm tactics need to go away. And the singling out of this group for a 1.5-percent raise - that needs to go away, too."
In a scathing email to county commissioners, Lopinto took exception to repeated statements from Baker and her assistants that the fire department leadership was partly responsible for the agency's current financial difficulties. The department had been running at a deficit for much of the last six years and tapping its reserve fund to pay for daily operations.
"I can't sit back and watch my devotion to this county for 35 years and the collective efforts of my staff being systematically deteriorated by inaccurate accusations or insinuations which are ultimately resulting in a higher millage rate and the loss of pay for the firefighters," he wrote. "It's wrong information and it's reckless to say it. If it's a misunderstanding, then it should be publicly corrected."
Baker responded to Lopinto over the weekend and sent an email Monday morning to the entire Fire Rescue Department to clear the air.
"The current situation is not the fault of Fire/Rescue Administration," she wrote, adding that all revenue decisions were made by former County Administrator John Gallagher and Mike Nurrenbrock, his director of Management and Budget.
Baker said she learned about the deficit spending in early May, when she got a notice from the Clerk & Controller that Fire Rescue had an issue with its reserve funds. Lopinto and current Chief Scott Cassin had no idea.
"I had always assumed that Gallagher and the department heads were discussing revenues, but I have come to find out that those discussions never took place," she said.
Baker also said she "dropped the ball" when she released the budget without first notifying members of the union - who are currently in wage negotiations - that the pay raises could be reduced by half. She said she made the final call just hours before the budget was completed, but union leadership learned about it from the media.
"I like to think of myself as a good communicator, and I didn't get my head wrapped around the fact that I needed to let them know before it went to the board," she said. "I didn't get out ahead of it."
The union, International Association of Firefighters Local 4420, ratified a contract in March after three years of impasse and dropped a wage grievance largely on the promise that they'd get the 3-percent in fiscal 2014. While the firefighters did received 5-percent pay raises in 2009 and 2011, they didn't get the raises they were entitled to in 2012. Lopinto said he "firmly believes" the union would have won the grievance.
"Remember that they had the upper hand and chose to forfeit it in a demonstration of unity and trust," he wrote.
He also accused the Gallagher administration of using "trickery" to convince union members to ratify the contract after two failed votes. "It should be known that in the past, and even though I argued against it, county administration didn't desire to give the firefighters the same raise as the other county employees regardless of any new found budgetary shortfall excuses," he wrote.
Baker said it was always her intent to make the 3-percent pay raises across the board. "What's limiting us is the fire millage rate," she said.
The proposed budget increases the fire service millage by $7 million - more than 11 percent - and that requires a four-vote super-majority for approval from the Board of County Commissioners. Anything higher would require a unanimous vote.