The union for East Naples firefighters intends to file legal action against the East Naples Fire Control and Rescue District for declaring financial distress last fall under false pretenses, union officials said Monday.
By declaring "financial urgency" last Oct. 11, the district violated its collective bargaining agreement in order to lay off nine firefighters and institute pay and benefit reductions of 25 percent or more to all firefighters, said Jim Brantley, the attorney for the Collier Professional Firefighters & Paramedics union.
"The Florida Legislature never defined financial urgency," he said, calling it an obscure part of a Florida statute. "Our position is they used it as an end-run around the collective bargaining and that is illegal. We don't think they will be able to defend it."
The layoffs of the nine firefighters were aimed to help shore up a $3.2 million budget deficit for this year. In mid-December, the district nonetheless turned around and rehired five of the firefighters.
The district's attorney, John Hament, said the ability to declare "financial urgency" was enacted several years ago and has been used by various government entities whose finances are less dire than East Naples fire.
"We are not the first," he said. "A 20 percent (operating) deficit is what the City of Miami had and they declared over a year ago. Ours is between 25 to 30 percent."
Hament said declaring financial urgency gave the district and union two weeks to engage in impasse negotiations, but the union failed to bargain.
In another vein, Brantley said the union reviewed district records from last October through December and found questionable discretionary spending, ranging from nearly $28,000 for new furniture and $15,000 to paint a truck used in rural brush.
Brantley also questioned what he called the "sweetheart" buyout agreement last year with the former fire chief, Keith Teague, which pays him $4,846 every two weeks until Sept. 30.
The deal was made despite the fact that Teague had already signed up for the state's deferred retirement option program, DROP, Brantley said. That program requires setting a date to leave, so there was no need to offer him a buyout, Brantley said.
All told, the district has spent $880,000 on buyouts and spending at the expense of the firefighters let go, he said.
Hament said the district's pay reductions, change in its method for paying over time, and savings from four people who remain laid off will save $2.5 million annually.
Two of the rehired firefighters filled vacancies, he said. The other three were hired for operational needs to maintain service levels.
Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt said six of the buyouts, except for Teague's, were in last year's budget and will mean millions in savings over the long run.
"We are not wasting any money," he said.
Schuldt also said the district and union meet regularly in hopes of getting past its contract dispute.
"I am very encouraged by the current relationship between management and union representatives," Schuldt said.
One of the laid-off fire fighters who was rehired, Rowan Knoff, 44, said the district's actions are disgraceful. He said nobody in administration had been let go when the layoffs occurred.
"It definitely affects your motivation," Knoff said. "Unfortunately, I will stay here until a better opportunity comes along."