The Zephyrhills Fire Department soon could consolidate into Pasco County Fire Rescue, but myriad issues are still being negotiated.
The Zephyrhills City Council held a March 2 workshop to review a county-drafted interlocal agreement that would provide fire suppression/first responder services for the municipality.
Under the agreement, Pasco Fire Rescue would operate the city’s two fire stations and would absorb the city’s fire department personnel at their proper pay step. The county agency would ensure and maintain additional staffing needs at both stations and place an ambulance within the city limits.
The negotiations are a result of a unanimous council decision last July to direct city staff to begin formal consolidation talks with Pasco County Fire Rescue.
The impending merger is due in part to funding and staffing issues that have plagued the city’s fire department for several years.
With a merger, Zephyrhills property owners would pay for county fire rescue services through a Municipal Service Taxing Unit, or MSTU.
City officials say that an MSTU for fire services is expected to have less financial impact on city residents and commercial entities than a fire assessment fee.
During the 90-minute workshop, however, city leaders expressed reservations about several aspects of the drafted proposal.
One of the larger concerns involves the amount of leave hours that a Zephyrhills Fire Department employee would be allowed to transfer to the county.
Based on the agreement, the Zephyrhills fire employee could transfer a maximum of 48 hours of annual and sick leave to the county.
Zephyrhills firefighter union leader Travis Geiger and city staff both object to that limit.
Geiger is a 13-year Zephyrhills fire veteran with more than 1,000 hours of vacation and sick leave on the books.
“Some of us have accumulated a lot of hours, and now we’re not going to have that,” Geiger told the council.
“For me to go over and now suddenly have only 48 hours and be a 13-year employee, I do feel like there’s a certain amount of time off that I’ve earned, that when I want to take a day off, I would like to be able to take that day off; that’s part of the longevity, and that goes for anybody,” he said.
Geiger said he understands the county’s point of view — a concern that Zephyrhills fire employees would “just take a bunch of time off” when they move over to Pasco Fire Rescue.
He suggested that city staff negotiate for 50% of what each Zephyrhills fire employee has accumulated.
“It seems like an easy number,” Geiger said. “I’m not taking all of it…but, it gives me a little bit of cushion.”
Issues remain unresolved
Another concern involves the proposed requirement that a Zephyrhills fire employee must have eight years of service with the county before receiving retiree group health care.
That requirement would pose a problem for four Zephyrhills fire employees, who’ve been with the city for more than 20 years and have less than five years to go until earning retirement status.
Geiger said he believes there’s “some amount of wiggle room” for the county to take care of the longest-tenured employees on a case-by-case basis.
“We’re trying to reduce that eight years,” Geiger said. “The eight years was a number (the county) pulled out of the sky.
“I think they’re willing to lower that number again,” he said, and he thinks “their concern is they don’t want people to work for a day and quit.”
Zephyrhills City Manager Billy Poe also had some issues.
He pointed out various financial errors in the agreement — such as how the city isn’t properly credited for transferring over fleet and equipment to the county, which he said could mean a net positive swing of at least several hundred thousands of dollars.
The city manager also questioned a “Public Service Answering Point” charge, which states the city must pay the county $17.47 for each emergency 911 call for medical/fire rescue services. Based on the roughly 4,000 calls the city had last year, that would equate to about a $70,000 charge each year, Poe said.
“That number may be justified,” Poe said, but he needs to see the breakdown of where the costs are coming from.
Another issue that needs further discussion involves the county’s push to handle plan reviews for all new construction within city limits, Poe said.
The city has an in-house building official.
Poe said he understands the county’s perspective, as its firefighters would be the ones going into various building structures.
But, he said, “we want to be able to control the development and the pace of development and the timeframes that these plans are approved.”
City council president Ken Burgess agreed: “We don’t want our development at the mercy of somebody else’s department, so we need to make sure we find a solution for that.”
Elsewhere, the city is seeking a 20-year contract with automatic renewals with the county, as opposed to a 15-year agreement with automatic renewals the county has proposed.
The city also wants more information from the county on such issues as: the costs for Pasco Fire Rescue to conduct home assists for city residents (helping someone who’s fallen to the floor and can’t get up); and costs to cover special events, like Pigz in Z’Hills BBQ & Blues Fest and the Founders Day Parade and Heritage Festival.
City staff will again meet with county fire leadership on March 11.
The hope is to have a finalized agreement in place by June, nearly a year after the council directed staff to begin formal negotiations.
Burgess put the status of negotiations like this: “It seems like it’s taking a long time, which it is, but I can see why it’s taking a long time, too, because we’re just having to go back and forth.
“As we said from the beginning, we want to look for as close to a perfect solution as we can get, and knowing that all sides are going to have to give a little somewhere to achieve that.”
Councilman Alan Knight added the impending fire department merger is “maybe the biggest step this council has taken in a long time.”
He asked negotiators to protect the city and the interest of the firefighters, as they continue their discussions.
Published March 11, 2020
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