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Lake City Firefighters Set to Vote On Union Contract. Should They Be Treated Like Other City Employees and the City Manager?

LAKE CITY, FL – For the past three months, Lake City's firefighters, members of the International Association of Fire Fighters, have been actively negotiating a new contract with the City. The final hang-up: should the City's fire fighters receive the across the board 2% cost of living raise received by every other City employee, including the City Manager?


More on the 2020 LCFF union negotiations:
Lake City Firefighters Set to Vote On Union Contract. Should They Be Treated Like Other City Employees?
September 30, 2020
Lake City Firefighter Negotiations Hobbled by Continuing City Failure to Provide Timely Access to Contract Documents
August 14, 2020
Third Round of LC Firefighter Negotiations Lays Groundwork for Monday's City-Union Match-Up
August 6, 2020
City Labor Atny to Firefighters: "We understand your position is the firefighters are underpaid."
July 30, 2020

After three months of negotiations, all issues in the contract between the firefighters and the City have been tentatively agreed upon except the matter of step-raise timing and the cost-of-living raise which is being given to all City employees except those represented by unions.

Presently, the firefighters are fighting to be treated equally, while the police union has not yet begun negotiations with the City.

August 31, 2020, was the last face-to-face Union-City negotiating session. All issues were tentatively agreed upon, except Article 14, "Wages and Classifications."

By this time, it was clear that the City was considering an across-the-board 2% cost of living raise for all City employees.

After the first hour of negotiations, the City's negotiator, Eric Holshouser of Rogers-Towers Law, said, "This is our last offer; we're at the end of a rope here with the amount of benefits we're willing to provide in this negotiation... and hope that you will take it back and ratify it."

Like being at a fire that refused to go out, Lake City firefighters fought on.

The Union team pointed out that the step raises proposed by the City barely affected any of the 21 firefighters. They recommended a change, which they said would make it fairer and practical.


Austin Thomas during the August 20 in person negotiations.

Austin Thomas, the fire fighter's negotiator, told the City that the Union had added a "me-too" clause to Article 14. The "me-too" clause gives the firefighters the same benefit that a regular City employee would receive.

Mr. Thomas said, "If the City plans on giving out a bonus for Christmas like they've done in the past or if they wanted to give a cost of living raise, then the members covered under this bargaining unit would receive the same raise."

Mr. Thomas asked, "Does the City have any plans to give an increase this year?"

City Manager Helfenberger answered, "I'm looking at a 2% for non-union full time."

City Labor Attorney Eric Holshouser during the last virtual negotiations.

City Labor Negotiator Holshouser jumped in, "This is something that we've not discussed before, and I think adding proposals at this juncture is going to go in the wrong direction."

 Mr. Thomas replied, "If the City is going to give a 2% for every other department, we want to stay in line with the rest of the City."

Attorney Holshouser said, "I don't think that is going to be acceptable. That costs more, and we told you that the proposal is as far as we can go economically."

The firefighters have calculated the "me-too" cost at approximately $15,000 to cover the 21 firefighters.

The City's 2021 budget is over $51,000,000

At about two hours into the negotiations, after Attorney Holshouser again said the Union had received the City's "last best final offer," Chief Burnham doubled down.

Chief Burnham told the Union, "I think we've been more than generous in offering and offering and giving and giving. We've given you two more certifications; two more opportunities to get a three percent increase in your pay... 27 percent in all if you carry all those certifications... You guys have improved this contract tremendously and we're going to just stick with what we've got. Our last and final proposal has been sent to you."

The Union Reaches Out

In the third week of September, the Union began reaching out to the final deciders in the City, the City Council members. The Union's plan was to discuss the two sticking points with each City Council member.

The Union had been able to contact three Council members: Moses, Jefferson, and Mayor Witt.

In the next couple of days, all three of them had spoken with the City Manager.

September 18

On September 18, your reporter spoke with City Manager Helfenberger. Mr. Helfenberger said he received a call from Councilman Jefferson, who relayed that "Austin" (Thomas) said he would like to "go over some fire department stuff."

Mr. Helfenberger continued, "I said, that's fine."

Mr. Helfenberger said he likes to attend meetings, which include City Council members.

City Manager Helfenberger said he was told by Chief Burnham that "Austin decided to scrap it."

Your reporter said, "I was told you said they couldn't meet with the Council people."

Mr. Helfenberger said, I never said that, adding, "I really have no problem meeting with any employees and Council, any time. I made myself available and it is not a big deal. I've done it a lot of times, but I would not tell somebody not to meet."

A little while later, Chief Burnham explained the situation. He told your reporter that "nobody" said the firefighters couldn't meet with the Council members. "They said we need to research it."

According to the Chief, Mr. Helfenberger wanted to find out what the meeting was about so that he could research it and make sure that Councilman Jefferson would not be violating the interaction policy between Council members and employees.

The Chief said Mr. Helfenberger found out from the attorney – "it's fine." "Nobody ever said that they couldn't meet."

Chief Burnham during the in person negotiations.

Chief Burnham said he had no problem with the firefighters meeting with the Council members in the firehouse.

Your reporter asked, "How do you feel about the 2%? Some of the guys may not get any raise?"

Chief Burnham answered that he wished the City had known about it before.

Chief Burnham added, "I'm not bucking it. I'm not going to work against it."

City Councilman Eugene Jefferson Weighs In

City Councilman Jefferson is known to play by the rules.

Later on the 18th, Councilman Jefferson told your reporter that Austin Thomas had called him, but did not mention the Union contract.

Mr. Jefferson said that he called the City Manager for advice. He said he was concerned about violating the City Interference Policy.

Mr. Jefferson added that he didn't feel comfortable discussing the contract with the firefighters, "knowing that they are negotiating the contract."

IAFF Representative Randy Wyse on the 2%

Your reporter reached out to the International Association of Fire Fighters representative, Randy Wise.

Your reporter asked, "This 'me-too' clause – is this common practice in union contracts."

Mr. Wyse answered that it does happen.

Your reporter asked if he thought it was fair that everyone in the City was to receive a 2% cost of living raise while the City firefighters were not.

Mr. Wyse answered, "I think it's a little disingenuous for the City, especially in the times that we're in. There ought to be fairness across the board."

He continued, "If the firefighters don't think the contract is fair, they don't have to vote for it. That is the right they have under the Florida statutes."

Your reporter followed up, "The firefighters claim that the 2% across-the-board raise would only cost the city $15,000."

Mr. Wyse replied, "That seems like a very small number in the scope of their overall budget. It doesn't seem like that would be a breaking point if that's what it cost."

Mayor Witt and City Manager Helfenberger

Mayor Witt during a City Council meeting.

Your reporter's last call on September 18 was to Mayor Witt. Your reporter explained the goings-on and asked the Mayor for a comment.

Mayor Witt said, "they" called me yesterday and that he didn't know if it was right or wrong for him to discuss the situation directly with the firefighters. "I want to do it right," he said.

Mayor Witt added, "Either I negotiate, or the City Manager negotiates. Somebody's got to be in charge, but I don't mind getting their side of the story."

September 19

On September 19, your reporter spoke with the City Manager Helfenberger.

According to Austin Thomas, Councilwoman Melinda Moses was scheduled to meet with the firefighters on Saturday, September 19. It appears she canceled, although this is not entirely clear.

Your reporter asked the City Manager if he recommended Councilwoman Moses not speak with the firefighters.

Mr. Helfenberger answered, "I said it is not a good idea if you are going to be talking about anything that affects the Union. I didn't say you can't go... I never told anybody, 'you can't go.' They have a right to talk to the Council."

Your reporter asked the City Manager about the 2% "me-too," explaining that the firefighters did the math and that the cost to the City would be about $15k."

City Manager Helfenberger replied, "It's a business decision."

September 21, City Labor Attorney Eric Holshouser Misrepresents the Status of the Union Contract

On September 21, Eric Holshouser emails the Union, the Chief, the City Manager, and the HR Director.

Mr. Holshouser wrote:

I understand that some of your members have contacted City Council members regarding the contract negotiations between the City and the IAFF which resulted in our tentatively agreed collective bargaining agreement.  While that tactic is not illegal, the City’s position is that is not an appropriate good faith way to try to resolve issues in collective bargaining; rather, the Union should take the tentatively agreed contract to a ratification vote and proceed from there depending on the outcome of the vote. 

Before the ratification vote, please let your members know that if the negotiations drag on past October 1, any proposal from the City will be prospective only, and any resulting pay increases will not be retroactive back to October 1.  In the meantime, the provisions of the current agreement will remain in force and effect.

Mr. Holshouser misrepresented the status of the contract as being "tentatively agreed." It was not.

Additionally, if the negotiations continue past the expiration of the contract on October 1, it will be up to the City Council if it will make any of the negotiated conditions in the contract retroactive – and not the City Manager.

On September 29, your reporter emailed Attorney Holshouser the following:

I do not recall the union representatives "tentatively" agreeing to the "collective bargaining agreement." Indeed, after reviewing my notes, I could only find certain articles TA'd [tentatively agreed], but not a tentative agreement to the collective bargaining agreement. If you have evidence or comment that demonstrates that this is a true statement, please send it along.

Mr. Holshouser has not responded.

Who Are the City's Contracted Employees?

City Manager Joe Helfenberger prepares for firefighter union negotiations
City Manger Joe Helfenberger during negotiations. He will receive the 2% raise.

There are two bargaining units in the City: the firefighters union and the police union. The union members are bound by a contract.

The other contracted City employee is the City Manager. Will the City Manager get the two percent? His contract speaks for itself: "The City agrees to provide general benefits to Helfenberger, at a minimum, equal to that which is provided to all other employees of the City."

Yes, City Manager Helfenberger will receive a 2% cost-of-living raise.

While the face of the City's negotiating team is Labor Attorney Eric Holshouser, it is clear that the man at the helm is City Manager Helfenberger.


On Thursday and Friday, October 1 & 2, the firefighters will be voting on whether or not to ratify a contract, which leaves them out of the 2% increase in which all other City employees share, including the City Manager.

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