Palm Beach, FL – The Palm Beach Town Council has scheduled a special public hearing on October 16, 2003 at 9:30 AM to decide the fate of firefighter/paramedic pay and benefits. Town administrators and Fire-Rescue department managers have recommended cutting pay and reducing benefits ranging from $200.00 to over $7,000 annually for some firefighter and paramedics. Proposed Supervisory cuts will total over $12,000.00 annually. The Supervisors will be having a separate Public Hearing concerning their issues on November 14, 2003. The average reduction would be approximately $4,400.00 annually.
The recommended cuts come on the heels of salary and benefit increases and promotions for Fire-Rescue department managers and have enraged and demoralized the department’s supervisors, firefighters and paramedics. The reductions would immediately affect take-home pay and cause a reduction in pension benefits for any firefighter or paramedic nearing retirement age. Reducing the salary on which pensions are calculated will affect retiring firefighters and paramedics for the rest of their lives. Income losses would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars over a retiree’s expected lifetime. Some firefighters and paramedics will be forced into early retirement to avoid the lower pension benefits.
The hearing to be held in the Town council chambers, 360 South County Road, is the last step for firefighters and paramedics who for over three years have asked to have pay and benefit inequities corrected. When compared to surrounding fire-rescue departments the Town has one of the lowest actual pay rates as established during a two-day Special Master’s hearing in July. The Town rejected nearly all a Special Master’s recommendations in which he sided with the firefighters and paramedics though accepted all recommendations that were against the firefighters and paramedics and for the Town.
The Special Master, Mr. Stanley Sergent, an experienced arbitrator selected by both the Town and the firefighters and paramedics, ruled on numerous issues at impasse reached during a nearly two year attempt to reach a negotiated contract agreement. Calling the Town’s pay system “bizarre”, Mr. Sergent recommended implementing the pay plan suggested by firefighters which spelled out how a firefighter or paramedic progressed through the pay plan and would correct past restrictions. If the Town proceeds with their proposal the pay for firefighters and paramedics would be reduced to the worst in the county despite council members and town management’s public declaration that their desire is to have employees in the top quartile of the surrounding market. Other issues concerned determining formulas for layoffs and discharge, types of uniforms, station and working conditions, as well as agreeing to conduct business in a harmonious manner, a statement the Town’s labor attorney called ” gobbledy-gook” even though it is part of the Town’s own Code of Ordinances.
Firefighters and Paramedics in Palm Beach already demoralized over the Town’s lack of concern for pay disparity fear the department will become a revolving-door training ground for inexperienced paramedics and firefighters. They also fear the large cuts in pay would likely force the most experienced paramedics into early retirement or to seek comparable employment elsewhere leaving a void of experience in the one of the most critical of town needs – Emergency Medical Services. Service levels as well as “the recruiting of quality, qualified applicants will most definitely be affected”, stated Matt Mierzwa, attorney for the firefighters and paramedics, during the Special Master’s hearing.
The Town has always declared a desire for a “higher level of service” which firefighters and paramedics believe will be adversely affected if the Town carries through with its proposals.