By Michael Salerno
For Hometown News
PORT ORANGE - Firefighters' paychecks got a little slimmer this month.
That's because city officials recently instituted a retroactive pay adjustment where the city would recover over two years' worth of incentive payments to firefighters by taking deductions from their paychecks over a 156-week period.
Firefighters said this retroactive adjustment is a pay cut that would cause financial hardships on their families.
"For every $5 (firefighters) earn, they're having $1 taken away from them by the city," said Mark Vroman, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 3118. "And that's before taxes or anything else."
Firefighters salaries in Port Orange range from $30,000 to $50,000, not including benefits, annually, according to city documents.
It's not the first time this year firefighters have seen lower paychecks. The city began implementing a 6 percent wage reduction in May.
The cuts to firefighters' pay has been a concern to Drew Bastian, a retired firefighter and city council candidate, who's heard from many firefighters they would need to take second jobs in order to pay the bills.
"A lot of them are seeking part-time employment to help with their budgets," he said.
But city staff views this retroactive pay adjustment as a means of recovering payments they were contractually obligated to pay firefighters while the city's labor contract with the fire union was tied up in court hearings over the last two years.
"We have to maintain everything in those contracts until final resolution is completed," City Manager Ken Parker said. "Even though ... the council decided to stop step adjustments (periodic increases to an employee's salary), they (firefighters) still got the step increases until those administrative and legal challenges were finalized."
Mr. Parker said he told firefighters on several occasions that the city reserved the right to recover step adjustments and incentive pay given to firefighters if the Public Employees Relations Commission or the First District Court of Appeals affirmed the effective date of imposed articles in the city's 2008 contract with the fire union.
City documents show the city would recover about $421,000 with the 6 percent wage reduction, while the retroactive repayments of incentive pay would recover an additional $23,000. The range of money owed by firefighters is between $5,000 and $17,000. Mr. Vroman said he owes about $8,000.
Mr. Vroman said he believes the retroactive salary adjustment would not result in a significant reduction in the city's unfunded liability in the fire pension. He believes an increase in the amount of money firefighters contribute to their own pensions would be a better solution.
"We offered them (city leaders) a significant contribution and that wasn't good enough," he said.
Firefighters currently pay a half-percent of their own salary into their pensions. To help reduce the unfunded liability, they have previously offered to increase their pension contributions, most recently proposing to contribute 10.1 percent of their pay.
But city leaders rejected firefighters' proposals to increase their pension contributions every time they were presented. Mr. Parker has previously said increased contributions would not reduce the unfunded liability and that it could only be reduced if the pension fund has actuarial gains or if firefighters' benefits are reduced. Actuarial gains and losses come from the difference between estimates and actual experience in a pension plan.
City staff said the fire pension's debt is currently $22 million. With the salary adjustments and drastic changes to retirement benefits expected to go before the city council on Sept. 18, Mr. Parker said the city could trim about $2 million from the debt.
Those changes include raising the normal retirement age to 52 with 25 years of credited service or 55 with 10 years of credited service, changing the definition of salary to mean only base pay, and changes to how average final compensation and cost of living adjustments are calculated.
While the city expects to achieve a savings, firefighters feel a continued financial pinch.
"It's these kind of measures that are going to continue to perpetuate the economic woes our country faces," Mr. Vroman said. "The middle class is what drives this economy. If they don't have the money to buy things, it hurts everybody."