Amid heated union contract negotiations, East Naples firefighters are turning up the pressure on their interim fire chief and elected commissioners.
Firefighters levied a vote of no confidence in interim East Naples Fire Chief Keith Teague at a Tuesday union meeting. On Thursday, they also called for consolidating leadership with neighboring Golden Gate Fire Control and Rescue District to save taxpayers money, according Chris Tobin, the union president of the Collier Professional Firefighters and Paramedics union.
The union represents East Naples and Golden Gate Firefighters.
“The corruption from the fire chief and that board of commissioners is dug in as deep as a tick,” Tobin said, “and it’s going to take firefighters and the public to fix the situation.”
The vote was unanimous among East Naples firefighters, Tobin said. However, Teague said he doubts that claim.
The vote signals the growing tensions between the interim chief and the East Naples firefighters union during collective bargaining negotiations.
Teague has dismissed both the no confidence vote and the consolidation proposal as a distraction from the district’s goal of balancing the budget.
“It’s kind of a badge of honor,” Teague said. “Every fire chief goes through that. I’m doing what I need to do for the taxpayers of East Naples.”
The East Naples Fire Control and Rescue District is facing more than $3 million in budget deficits for the next fiscal year, officials say. The commission has until Oct. 1 to approve a balanced budget. Fire district leaders are trying to negotiate firefighter pay cuts with the union to make up the budget difference.
“Something’s got to give to the tune of 3-plus million dollars,” Teague said. “Whether I’m the fire chief or I’m on the beach sipping on margaritas, the budget is going to get balanced.”
In July, the district implemented mandatory furloughs for East Naples firefighters and administrators to begin immediate savings. Those furlough have required occasional brownouts for one fire station, which Tobin has called a public safety risk.
Instead of deep pay cuts, East Naples firefighters called for consolidating “chief fire officers, operational and administrative functions” with the Golden Gate fire district, according to a letter from Tobin.
Tobin said firefighters believe the move will increase service and cut costs in the long term.
Teague dismisses that claim, charging that service would likely be lost in such a move and savings are doubtful.
The interim chief said the district is in a financial crisis because falling property values have led to decreased tax revenue. Independent fire districts rely almost exclusively on property taxes.
The best way to make the budget match current revenues, Teague said, is for firefighters to agree to pay cuts. Personnel costs typically account for at least 75 percent of fire district budgets.
John Hament, the fire district’s labor attorney, said if the union did not offer concessions the fire district may have to raise taxes, implement furloughs or lay off firefighters.
Both sides agree a tax hike is undesirable as they make their cases to the public.
Given the level of unemployment in Collier, Teague said he doubts firefighters are going to get the taxpayer’s support for keeping pay levels the same.
“No one is going to feel sorry for a shared sacrifice,” he said.
In the meantime, the union has been taking aim at the public’s confidence in department leadership.
In addition to questions about declining public safety with furloughs, the union charges that Teague has violated the fire district policy, and has possibly broken state and the federal law, Tobin said. The union has alleged poor safety conditions and violations of open government against chiefs and the fire commission.
Tobin has twice charged that the interim chief or elected fire commissioners have violated Florida’s Sunshine Law, requiring open government.
Teague has repeatedly called Tobin’s claims false, and accuses him of using media outlets to scare up headlines. None of the union complaints against the fire district have resulted in ethics charges from state officials.
The union also took a tough stance against previous East Naples Fire Chief Doug Dyer, who resigned in February amid allegations of an inappropriate comment at a fire department retirement party.
Last year, Golden Gate firefighters voted no confidence in current Golden Gate Chief Bob Metzger, although Tobin said that relationship has improved.
As a budget deadline nears, the fight isn’t likely to get any prettier.
Hament said that due to stalling from the union, the district may have to ask for even bigger salary cuts.
Connect with Aaron Hale at /www.naplesnews.com/staff/aaron-hale