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Lake City News

City Labor Atny to Firefighters: "We understand your position is the firefighters are underpaid." 

photo of city firefighters and city manager
Every firefighter that could attend the negotiations, did. In the foreground, City Manager Joe Helfenberger.                                                                Photo: Columbia County Observer

LAKE CITY, COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – On Tuesday morning, July 28, the Lake City Firefighters Union sat down with the City to review the City proposed contract. At times, it was contentious and not pretty as both sides acknowledged that the firefighters haven't received a raise since 2003.

Background
Fire Chief Randall Burnham Sets the Record Straight

It has been acknowledged by both the Firefighter's Union and the City representatives that the City firefighters have not received an hourly raise since 2003.

Fire Chief Randall Burnham spent his 30-year career with the Lake City Fire Department working his way through the ranks to become chief.

Lake City Firechief Randall Burnham
Fire Chief Randall Burnham makes a point during the negotiations.                   Photo: Observer

Yesterday afternoon, Chief Burnham spent a few minutes with your reporter.

The Observer: "The union is complaining that they haven't received an hourly raise since 2003 and that they are making what you were making back then. Is this accurate?"

Chief Burnham: "We were stagnant for 15 years."

The Observer: "What's happened for the past 15 years?"

Chief Burnham: "The Lake City Fire Department lay dormant. Nobody went to bat for the Lake City Fire Department personnel and their wages. The union struggled. There was a time when the City was between city managers."

The Observer:  "Austin [Union President Austin Thomas] claims that he is being paid what you were being paid in 2003 for the same job. Is that accurate?"

Chief Burnham:  In 2003, I was making what he is today in 2019. That's a fact."

The lease of two new Tahoes for the Fire Chief and Assistant Chief have been a bone of contention with the union, with the union claiming there was nothing wrong with the old chief vehicles.

The Union says that money could have been used for raises. The management position was it's cheaper to get rid of them and lease new ones.

Your reporter asked Chief Burnham about the vehicles.

 "Chief, can you tell me something about the Tahoes as this seems to be a bone of contention with the union."

Chief Burnham answered, "I had nothing to do with that. City Management came to me and said, 'We want you to be on the lease program. Your vehicles are six years old. We want to get rid of them while they still have value.'"

The Observer asked, "Is there anything wrong with them?"

Chief Burnham answered, "There really isn't anything wrong with them other than a few cosmetic things. They are low mileage."

The City maintains a 20-year life cycle for its fire trucks. Your reporter asked, "You make the fire trucks last. Why don't you have to make the chief's cars last?"

Chief Burnham replied, "In my opinion, from a management standpoint it was a good decision for the taxpayer dollar, but it was not my idea."

Chief Burnham continued, "Maybe it was a year or two too soon."

A former high ranking City fire official told the Observer that the Chief's Tahoes were originally bought on a Sheriff's contract, "It was a good deal... The City did not need to get rid of the old Tahoes as there was nothing wrong with them."

The Union / City Meeting

In its labor negotiations with the union, the City is being represented by Rogers Towers Law, specifically Eric Holshouser, a veteran labor attorney.

Attorney Eric Holshouser
A seasoned attorney, Eric Holshouser showed his frustration as he was trying to go through the contract. Photo: Columbia County Observer.

The union, Local 2288 of the International Association of Firefighters, AFL-CIO, doesn't seem to have any help from its union and so far seems to be flying blind without an attorney.

Lake City firefighter Austin Thomas
Lake City firefighter and union president Austin Thomas knew the issues inside and out.

Austin Thomas, the union president, is highly regarded as being intelligent, well-spoken, in tune with the issues, but something he acknowledges, has a passion which sometimes gets in the way of the issues. He is the negotiator for the union.

The first round of the City contract proposal was forwarded to the union using an old lawyer trick of providing documents at the very last minute. While in some cases documents don't get completed until the last minute, the Rogers Towers proposal was completed on July 15, but was not forwarded to the union until 3:35 pm on July 27, less than a day before the scheduled 10 am City Union meeting on July 28.

Even with all the time the law firm had, they still managed to leave out a couple of articles from the original agreement.

The union had previously sent along its suggested changes to the contract. Even though Mr. Holshouser said "some" of the union changes were incorporated in the provided City's version, it was impossible to determine where they were.

When a discussion about the step pay plan came up, Mr. Holshouser admitted he didn't know how it worked, but said he would find out.

Mr. Thomas said, "We want quality applicants. We want them to be here. We want them to stay and be a part of the department and grow with the department; we don't want to punish the guys who have been here for five years with dedicated service without a raise."

Mr. Thomas said he was concerned about new hires making as much as folks who had already spent a few years in the department.

Mr. Holshouser said anytime you give a raise in the lower ends of the pay scale "you've got to defend for compression or even leapfrogging."

Mr. Thomas followed up, telling the City, "That's why our proposal was going to incorporate a progressive pay plan which included a salary adjustment which would have kept people up to speed."

Mr. Holshouser said he would discuss it and added, "It seems to me that they shouldn't be any worse off."

Mr. Thomas followed up:

 "Our plan was supposed to be a progressive pay plan and a salary adjustment. The last thing we want to do is take people who will already feel they are underpaid in comparison to other like departments. We don't want to continue to let those guys fall in the cracks."
Lake City firefighter Austin Thomas
"The point of our proposal was to try to help the City Fire Department grow along with the City. The City is seeing substantial growth all over in every direction. All the Fire Department wants to do is keep up with that growth. And that's what we were trying to propose."

"We constantly turnover 3 to 5 thousand dollars every time we have to hire a fireman and get him fitted with gear. How cost-efficient is that to continue to do that?"

"We've already lost roughly a third of the department, who were hometown fellas', to other departments, who went out to get $5000 raises elsewhere."

"I don't want to lose the people we've already got invested six years in, in training and gear and education. I don't want to lose those guys because they feel like they are falling through the cracks."

Mr. Holshouser said, "In your counterproposal, you can propose language to cover the issues you are talking about."

Mr. Thomas said, "You are offering requirements to obtain a level of promotion that's never been required and you don't totally understand what you are asking."

Chief Burnham said, "That's your opinion."

Mr. Thomas followed up, "My point is you are asking for more requirements to do the same job and you are offering us the same money that was being offered in 2003."

Mr. Holshouser replied, "We understand you have a concern about wages. You made that crystal clear... You need to put that in your counter-proposal... This is our initial proposal... I'm trying to walk through our proposal and make sure you understand it and then when you come back with your counter-proposal based on this, then you can argue your points again... We hear you. The purpose of today... (Mr. Thomas cuts him off)

Mr. Thomas replied driving home the firefighter’s point:

"Do you hear me or are you listening? I need you to listen and hear me. I need you to really feel it – cause' I'm telling you we feel it. We really feel it. We feel it whenever we have to train constantly; whenever seven people leave the department in a three year span. We feel that as a department. The Chief can tell you there's been times within the last week where we didn't have the appropriate personnel at the station to even make the station whole. To even make the station what it should be according to his requirements. Not mine. The Chief requires that there is somebody at that station at all times with a certain level of knowledge; a certain level of service certifications; and a certain level of experience. We are losing that base and that group of people to choose from if we don't do something about this.

Mr. Holshouser said, "We understand your position is that the firefighters are underpaid."

Epilogue

Was the City listening? That is unknown. Chief Burnham was. He was at the table.

Using the CPI as a guide, an hourly rate of $13.50 in 2003 would be equivalent to an hourly rate of $19.20 today.

The next City/Union negotiation is scheduled for August 3 at 10 am.

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