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Firefighters agree to voluntary wage freeze

By Staff | May 17, 2009

Cape Coral firefighters will not be getting any raises next year – by choice.
In a series of votes from May 12 through May 15, the Cape Coral Professional Firefighters Local 2424 agreed to freeze wages union officials said Sunday.
The members of Local 2424 approved an amendment to their current collective bargaining agreement that immediately froze firefighters, engineers and lieutenants at their current pay rates, eliminating nearly $350,000 in projected costs, local president Mark Muerth said.
While there were some concerns expressed among the membership, there was a clear majority in favor, he said.
“I don’t have the exact numbers but it was overwhelmingly approved,” Muerth said in a telephone interview of the decision. “When it was done, I would say over two-thirds voted to approve.”
Local 2424 represents 190 members, both rank and file employees and battalion chiefs. The contract modification impacts all 190 members including the battalion chiefs who are working for a second consecutive year without a wage increase.
The wage freeze was suggested by the city and eliminates any increases that were due on Oct. 1, the start of the new budget year, Muerth said.
“This is a done deal,” he said. “The city actually proposed this to us, and we accepted it.”
The freeze is one example of how firefighters and related staff are doing their part during these budget times, he added.
“We’re bringing this out to illustrate that we are not ‘untouchable’ as some have suggested,” Muerth said. “There are cuts being made – you may not see them, but they are being made.”
While staff cuts and certain policy decisions are bargaining issues, the union waived its right to go back to the table concerning the elimination of more than 23 front-line and other positions that will save an estimated $2 million. Other changes, including the elimination of three vacant lieutenant positions, and certain service reductions, will save another $600,000, he said.
Although the wage freeze originated with the city and has been approved by Local 2424, the Cape Coral City Council must still formally approve any change in the contract, city officials said Sunday.
Council members contacted Sunday had not yet received official notification of the voluntary wage freeze. The news, however, is welcome, they said.
“I have not had an opportunity to see it, but I certainly applaud it and them for stepping up to the plate like that,” Councilmember Tim Day said. “I hope the other bargaining units do so as well.
“I think they’re doing the right thing to do this,” he said of the local. “We really are in that bad a shape.”
Mayor Jim Burch took a similar view.
“You have to really commend them, they really realize we have some dire decisions to mull,” he said. “It’s a better place to be than where we were before the vote.”
Due to continuing declines in property values, the city is expecting a $33 million-plus decrease in property tax revenues for next year.
Estimates range from $33.4 million to $35.7 million, based on a predicted 35 percent drop in property valuations.
With decreases looming, Cape Coral City Council directed staff to prepare a target operations budget of $116.4 million for next year. The current operations budget is approximately $127 million.
To meet the council-mandated goal, staff, in turn, has proposed various cuts, including some of the above positions and service cuts for fire safety. Other proposals cut deeply into parks and recreation, with the elimination of numerous programs and positions on the table. Capital improvements, such as new sidewalks and vehicles, may be jettisoned as well.
Also on the table is discussion concerning a property tax rate increase, a new tax on electric bills, and the possible creation of a taxing district and subsequent annual assessments that would move fire safety services out of general fund operations into a funding district with revenue of its own.
Budget talks will continue through the summer and culminate in two budget hearings and a vote in the fall.