LAND O' LAKES - Pasco firefighter Joe Russo said he felt like he'd been sucker punched earlier this week when he heard about the county's proposed budget that gives firefighters a 1.5 percent raise and all other county employees 3 percent.
After all, the firefighters' union had finally ratified a contract in March after three years of impasse and dropped a wage grievance largely on the promise that they'd get the 3 percent in fiscal 2014.
"My guys are hitting the roof," said Russo, vice president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 4420. "And they didn't tell us - they announced it in a public meeting - that's what gets me."
He said union representatives met with fire Chief Scott Cassin after the budget came out.
"Needless to say, they don't think it's a good sign," Russo said.
The union members ratified the contract, which expires Sept. 30, after voting it down twice before. They called it a gesture of good faith because county commissioners agreed to accept a $2 million federal grant to hire 18 more firefighters. They were to resume wage negotiations this summer and held their first bargaining session on May 30.
"We've contacted our lawyers," Russo said. "It's not a sign of good faith. We already had one wage negotiation meeting, and they didn't bring it up."
Assistant County Administrator Heather Grimes said there were several factors that led to the recommendation to single out the firefighters for smaller raises. She recently discovered that the previous fire chief and budget director had been dipping into the department's reserves for years to make up for budget shortfalls.
"We don't know why they did it, and we can't ask them because they've all retired," Grimes said.
She said the department has to rebuild its reserve fund and pay for increased retirement costs. The county also needs to set aside about $1 million to maintain the 18 SAFER positions when the 2-year grant expires.
The total fire rescue budget increased by nearly $7 million, but it would cost an additional $500,000 to give the firefighters 3-percent raises.
"We wanted to give them as much as possible," Grimes said. "We chose raises over a lot of capital expenditures. We couldn't continue to dip into reserves. We can't eliminate any positions or we'd lose the SAFER grant."
The proposed budget increases the fire service millage by more than 11 percent, which requires a 4-vote supermajority for approval from county commissioners. Anything higher would require a unanimous vote, Grimes said.
Grimes said commissioners could redirect the SAFER reserve toward pay raises, but it would be counterproductive. "Why get into the situation of having to lay off those firefighters in the third year?" she said.
She emphasized that this proposal is just a starting point. Commissioners will continue to tweak the budget throughout the summer. The first public hearing isn't until Sept. 10.
Both the firefighters and the Teamsters were hoping for better labor-management relations once a new administrator was hired to replace John Gallagher. Commissioners ended up hiring Gallagher's protege, Michele Baker, after their first choice turned down the job.
Russo said even if commissioners find a way to give the firefighters the 3 percent they were expecting, this budget set the tone for Baker's administration.
"It's not good for the chief. And it's not good for Michele," he said. "She came to our meeting to try to sell the contract and spoke to my members about how this was going to be a fresh new start."