NAPLES — Interim East Naples Fire Chief Keith Teague describes the fire department’s budget crisis as being in the rapids heading for the falls.
Since 2008, the East Naples Fire Control and Rescue District is in the red nearly $3 million — about $2.6 million from this year alone — a reality that now has it grappling with mandatory furloughs, closed stations and potential layoffs.
“You cannot continue to see a decrease in revenue,” Teague said. “When there’s more money going out than coming in, something’s gotta give.”
Starting Friday district officials began mandating unpaid furloughs for all employees and temporary station closings, or “brown-out” days. To mend the deficit, the district is proposing pay cuts and increased contributions by employees for pension and health-care benefits.
A full staff, Teague said, is 20 people per 24-hour shift. To maintain the same level of service, four employees can be off at a time, two of which could be furloughed positions. If the employee count drops to below 15, a station would need to shut down completely for the day.
“I lose sleep at night because of this,” Teague said. “I started here in 1977 as a volunteer. The people I am now at odds with, they’re my friends, colleagues. I’ve crawled in fires with them. It’s very tough, but it’s a necessary evil.”
When the budget was put together last October for the current fiscal year, $2.7 million was taken from reserves to compensate for the lack of funding coming in through ad valorem taxes. Although the department has been able to recoup nearly $500,000 in belt-tightening efforts, it still is seriously in the hole.
“We’re running as lean as we possibly can right now,” Teague said.
If property values continue to dip — officials are expecting another 5.9 percent decrease in tax revenue this year — the fire department would need to make serious cutbacks.
“If we had to balance the budget in layoffs, it would be catastrophic. It would affect service in a severe way. We’d have to close a couple stations...” Teague said.
Teague said they are currently negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with the fire district’s labor union and are expecting to meet on July 18 to discuss that agreement.
John Hament, an attorney with Sarasota-based Kunkle Miller and Hament Labor Law, which represents the district, is fervently seeking an agreement with the Southwest Florida Firefighter’s union.
The district and the union agree that they want to maintain the level of service provided and prevent layoffs or furloughs. But it’s how that is achieved that seems to be the question.
Hament said the district has three proposals to prevent layoffs and to cease furloughs. In one proposal, employees would take a 10 to 12 percent pay cut followed by a pay freeze. In another, employees start contributing to their health insurance — $45 per pay check for a single employee; $90 for an employee and spouse; and $135 for a family. In the final proposal, all employees, not just those in the Florida Retirement System, start contributing 3 percent to their retirement. Earlier this year, the state mandated all employees in the FRS start contributing 3 percent of their salaries to their own pensions.
Chris Tobin, president of the Southwest Florida Firefighters Union, said they have agreed to these conditions but wants to know why Teague and other administrative staff aren’t subject to the same cuts, including contributing to their own health insurance and pensions.
“It’s always where service meets the customer that has to suffer while fire chiefs continue to be overpaid and under-worked and completely disregard the welfare of the firemen and their families and their community,” he said.
But Hament disagrees with that assessment. He said the union wants concessions with conditions, including compensation for the furloughed time off, and to have it count toward overtime pay.
In addition to the cuts Hament is proposing, which may be the most significant proposal, he is changing the method of determining overtime. Currently, the district has had in its contract that all paid time off, including vacation time and sick days, is counted towards overtime.
“The taxpayers have been blindsided by this overtime pay. We’re trying to battle back against an outrageous long-standing overtime practice that we want to stop, we do not want this on the table,” Hament said. “We do not want to count any time off towards overtime.”
Tobin said in addition to the cuts and contributions, the union has offered to re-work the schedule so there wouldn’t be any overtime.
He also believes the furloughs were not the best solution, but Hament says that it was only way to achieve immediate financial relief.
“If we had the legal right to implement pure pay cuts we would do it,” Hament said. “ We can’t. That’s why we’re doing it in bargaining.”
The way the laws are structured, pay cuts can only be implemented through agreement by both the union and the district. Management, or the district, can institute furloughs without union agreement, Hament said.
Hament said furloughs currently save the same amount that would be saved through pay cuts, but it is not ideal.
“We don’t want furloughs. We want them working what their schedule is,” Hament said. “I’m hoping the union comes to their senses and agrees with our proposals that do not contain furloughs and just a pure pay cut.”
While the contention brews, and answers remain scarce – Teague, Hament and Tobin see no real end in sight.
“The options are pure pay cuts across the board, furloughs and layoffs, or a combination of both,” Teague said. “If we don’t do anything, if we don’t reduce our expenses, and approximately 90 percent of our expenses are personnel, then certainly layoffs is a real possibility.”