NAPLES — After nearly a year and a half of negotiating, Naples officials and the union representing the city's firefighters are no closer to an agreement.
The union's most recent three-year agreement ended in September 2011 and both sides have been at the negotiating table since July 2011. While both sides have presented multiple offers, negotiations stalled in January when city officials formally declared an impasse.
"The ideal goal was to have a voluntary agreement," said Roger Reinke, the assistant city manager and labor relations manager. "But it doesn't appear that we're going to get a voluntary agreement."
A special magistrate was in Naples on Aug. 30 for an impasse hearing. The magistrate was asked to make a recommendation on two issues — a safety and health provision and a pension provision.
But a recommendation from a special magistrate doesn't necessarily equal a deal, and complaints filed with the state's Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) in August could further slow the process.
"It's turning into a big legal mess," said Adam Nadelman, the union's president.
Nadelman said the union in November made a last-ditch effort to come to a voluntary agreement. The union, he said, proposed substantial changes to the pension system that could have saved the city more than $57 million over 30 years.
"We've come way off our last proposal to try to get a deal," he said. "(It was) what we can live with. To be honest, I thought they were going to jump all over it. I thought we had a deal."
Reinke said he wouldn't describe the city staff as being excited about the offer, but he did bring it to City Council. The proposal was rejected, but Reinke said the council isn't necessarily the reason. While council does provide policy direction, the city manager makes the final decision on contracts.
Still, Reinke said it was unlikely the city would have accepted the union's proposal, especially since city officials are under the impression this proposal — and an attempt to agree to the city's pension proposal during the August impasse hearing — is nothing more than an attempt to maintain current benefits.
If the city accepted the union's desire to tentatively agree to the pension plan in August, the item no longer would have been included in the special magistrate's recommendation. The item would have gone to the union's members for possible approval, and if members declined to ratify the agreement, the contract would revert to the current language.
"We agreed it was a ruse to circumvent the statutory impact ... and maintain benefits for a longer period," Reinke said.
The union promptly filed an unfair labor practices complaint with PERC.
That complaint states the city "refused to bargain in good faith by unlawfully rejecting the union's timely acceptance of its pension proposal and by deeming the parties to still be at impasse over the pension issue."
The city fired back and filed its own unfair labor practice complaint with the state agency. That complaint states the "union's motivation in agreeing to the city's pension proposal under these circumstances was to remove the issue from the impasse process in an attempt to frustrate the statutory impasse process."
Nadelman said the union isn't trying to circumvent the process; instead, the team is trying to get an agreement after months of negotiations.
"We were hoping it was going to be over," he said. "It's definitely a morale killer."
Nadelman said he wouldn't be surprised if the prolonged negotiations — and the lack of an updated contract — means the department will lose staff, especially employees who have been there for less than five years. Those firefighters, Nadelman said, are getting an entry-level salary because of pay freezes with no movement in the foreseeable future.
And while the department is hiring, Nadelman said he doesn't think those new hires will stick around for long.
"You hire someone who doesn't have a job, but who may not want to be here," he said. "They're going to take the job and they're going to continue to look for another."
Several Naples City Council members declined to comment on the status of the contact, citing ongoing negotiations and the unfair labor practice complaints.
"It's pretty much by the book for the tactics they're using," Mayor John Sorey said about prolonged contract negotiations. "I have been involved in a number of union negotiations and this isn't any different. Nothing that's happened has surprised me based on the negotiations I've been in before."
Sorey said council members respect the process and don't think the current battle over the firefighters' contract will have an effect on future negotiations with the city's other unions.
The special magistrate's recommendation is expected to be handed down in the next few days. If both sides don't accept the magistrate's proposal, the city could impose a contract on firefighters.
A hearing is set for Dec. 18 for a PERC hearing officer to review both the union's and city's unfair labor practice complaints.