NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker, in a move aimed at salvaging the frayed relationship between the county and its firefighters’ union, agreed to give firefighters a 3 percent pay raise this year.
Firefighters were furious this year when they learned that Bakers’ first budget included 3 percent raises for all county employees except them. They were slated to get 1.5 percent raises — and accused Baker of failing to negotiate in good faith after they had ratified their contract.
“She got off on the wrong foot with us,” said Joe Russo, vice president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 4420. After Friday’s agreement, he praised Baker and Fire Chief Scott Cassin. “This should go a long way with my members in having renewed confidence in her as our county administrator, and that we will be treated fairly.”
Baker said it was always her intention to offer all county employees 3 percent raises this year. When she was appointed in June to replace longtime administrator John Gallagher, Baker promised to change the tone of labor negotiations, and she took full responsibility for the public relations disaster with the firefighters.
Cassin said they were able to find the money for raises without increasing the 2014 budget. “It was really there the whole time,” he said. “We had a number of retirements, and we just replaced a lot of higher salaries with newer people. That got us thinking that we might be able to make it work.”
After a few more budget transfers within the division, they were able to make it work.
A key factor in the negotiation was the union’s willingness to participate in a pilot program that makes fire and arson investigators available on nights and weekends, which should reduce the department’s overtime expense, Cassin said.
They also agreed on terms related to employee evaluations and union dues deductions.
“With myself being relatively new, and of course Michele is new, we wanted to change the course of the relationship between the union and the county,” Cassin said. “We hope this will be the start — already the working relationship has improved dramatically.”
He said if county commissioners sign off on the agreement and the union ratifies the contract, the raises would be retroactive to Oct. 6. The union ratification vote is scheduled for Nov. 6-8.