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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2014
Tom Jackson

Jackson: Firefighter crisis tests Baker early

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Well. That was fast. Less than a month after she was hired on the rebound by commissioners jilted by their top pick, Michele Baker faces the first test of her leadership moxie.

We expect much to be just as swiftly revealed.

Possibly, 20 years from now, county historians gathered to celebrate Baker's well-deserved retirement will cite her deft management of the legendary Firefighter Crisis of '13 as the moment that rewarded Pat Mulieri's stubborn confidence in the first place.

On the other hand, come the fresh round of county administrator candidate interviews in the summer of 2015, it may be seen as the first foundational crack that affirmed the skepticism of Henry Wilson Jr.

Either way, there's plenty riding on how this goes down.

Over here are Pasco's unionized firefighters, who are suddenly hotter than a Tommytown meth lab, and rightly so. Not only does the proposed budget ask them to swallow a raise that's half the going rate for county workers, the snub comes after Baker, then chief deputy administrator, helped persuade - on behalf of longtime County Administrator John Gallagher, who retired before the monoammonium phosphate hit the fan - members to drop a 2012 grievance in exchange for a package of incentives that included new hires and, pivotally, a 3 percent wage hike.

v vAdd how firefighters learned they'd been bushwhacked - in media reports after Baker unveiled the budget at commissioners' board meeting July 9 - and it's honeymoon over. "She came to our meeting," Joe Russo, vice president of International Association of Firefighters Local 4420, told The Pasco Tribune's Laura Kinsler, "and spoke to my members about how this was going to be a fresh new start."

Cue Roger Daltrey. Meet the new boss. You know the rest.

And over there is reality, also known as Pasco countians - residents and owners of commercial property - already bracing for an onerous conclusion to a budget season that threatens rising millage rates and a nickel-a-gallon gas tax boost.

v vBut it's more complicated than that. Because firefighters operate out of a dedicated fund with its very own millage line, just getting the money necessary to fund firefighters' 1.5 percent raise will require approval of a supermajority. Collecting the additional $500,000 to fulfill the promise Baker dutifully delivered on Gallagher's behalf takes unanimity, also known as "Henry Wilson Jr.'s vote."

About that. With Mulieri heading for retirement, Wilson will be the only commissioner on the ballot in 2014. Taking his measure will be voters - perhaps a critical mass of voters - who will have gone longer than county employees without raises, whose wages have been cut and/or reduced by furlough edicts, who are un-?or underemployed, or whose incomes are fixed.

In short, even if he hearts, hearts, hearts Pasco's firefighters, it's highly unlikely Wilson would cast a tax-hiking vote that also would be seen as a favor to the administrator he alone opposed hiring.

In Baker's defense, having inherited this hook-and-ladder truck jackknifed and smoldering in a ditch, she and her team of newbies have scrambled, sometimes admirably, to douse this episode's assorted brush fires.

She apologized - fully and publicly - for having ambushed firefighters. She's also made nice with Tony Lopinto, the retired and well-regarded fire chief she assumed had been in the loop when, as we have lately learned, Gallagher and ex-budget director Mike Nurrenbrock conspired to plunder fire-rescue reserves to cover the department's operating shortfalls.

Baker, Gallagher's presumed right hand, says she learned about the sleight-of-bookkeeping only after she assumed the big chair in May and there was no one to intercept an alert by the clerk and comptroller's office. Beefing up the reserve to its statutory mandate apparently means, among other things, less money for raises.

Now, though the prior administration's willingness to massage funds to achieve a preferred end and punt the consequences affirms the cynicism of certain constitutional officers who clawed through Gallagher's budgetary briar patch, that was then; this is the fresh new (knock wood) now.

In the space of just over seven weeks since they backslapped Florida's longest serving county administrator out the door, and despite the hiring of his long-term apprentice, we have discovered we can take nothing for granted. We don't expect firefighters to like being first in the barrel, and anyone who brings up the fact of their raises in 2009 and 2011 while other workers' checks stayed flat can just hush. It's not their fault they negotiated effectively before we all became rueful experts on collateralized debt obligations.

In sum, then, we are willing - possibly, because she doesn't sign our (sadly stagnant, but never mind) paycheck, more willing than IAF Local 4420 - to extend Baker's stay in the honeymoon suite.

That said, be warned: We've endured five years of whining about the boss's predecessor, so our tolerance for blame-shifting, like the fire department's reserves, is about tapped out.

tjackson@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1851

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