An arbitrator has sided with the local firefighters’ union, ordering Charlotte County to pay about 200 employees some $800,000 in retroactive salary increases — a decision that prompted strong criticism from county commissioners, who say the union should forgo raises voluntarily.
According to County Administrator Ray Sandrock, the arbitrator’s final, binding decision came down Wednesday after a series of attempts to resolve a grievance between the International Association of Fire Fighters and the county failed.
At issue was a clause in the firefighters’ contract that provided for a 3 percent cost-of-living salary increase based on an employee’s anniversary date, and an education increase that rewards employees for completing college-level courses with a salary increase of up to 4 percent, Sandrock said. An employee who qualifies for both stands to earn up to a 7 percent raise, he added.
‘Back in better times, that was kind of a standard practice, that they would have that as part of their contract,’ Sandrock said. ‘When we got into hard economic times … the commission asked the union to forgo those raises, and they did — twice.’
The first concession came in 2007, when the union agreed to forgo salary increases through 2009. The second allowance happened later that year, when the union agreed to eliminate increases through September 2011, which is when the contract expired. Since then, the union has been unable negotiate a new contract, and now is at an impasse with the county.
‘That’s where the controversy comes in,’ Sandrock said. ‘Our position is that they were agreeing to those give-backs, which ran with their contract, and because we don’t have a new contract, our position was that (their concessions should be) extended (until a new contract was negotiated). The union’s position was that is was very specific to Sept. 30, 2011. And so, therefore, that’s what their grievance was based upon.’
Wednesday, an arbitrator issued a report backing the union, ruling that the county must pay, retroactively, a total of approximately $800,000 in COLA and education increases to the firefighter employees who are entitled to the raises, Sandrock said. He added the money would be pulled from budget reserves.
It was a decision that sparked heated commentary from Commissioner Robert Skidmore at a budget hearing Thursday. Calling it ‘extortion,’ Skidmore asked county staff to send a letter to union representatives asking the employee group to ‘voluntarily forgo’ any and all raises. Commissioners Bob Starr, Tricia Duffy, Chris Constance and Stephen R. Deutsch supported the move.
‘I find it hard to go to sleep at night knowing that there are others in this organization that have forgone (raises) for five years, and this commission has worked very hard to make sure that we treat every employee fairly,’ Skidmore railed. ‘I find it highly objectionable that one unit wants a 7 percent increase while others (forgo increases and some even take pay cuts).’
Attempts to reach an IAFF representative Friday were unsuccessful.
County Attorney Janette Knowlton said the arbitrator’s decision, which is final and binding, came after the county tried to reach a resolution with the union at two separate mediations.
Currently, the county is at impasse with the IAFF and another employee union, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. Knowlton said public hearings are scheduled for each next month, at which time the board will make decisions on each of the points of contention within the contracts of each union, Knowlton said.