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Tempers Rise over Martin County Budget

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  • Tempers Rise over Martin County Budget

    Sparks fly over Martin fire budget
    Several commissioners said a split budget vote was due to a conflict over the firefighters' contract.

    By George Andreassi staff writer
    September 25, 2003

    STUART — The Martin County Commission's split vote on the $27 million fire rescue budget reflects a conflict that had been brewing behind closed doors about the proposed contract for the firefighters union, several commissioners said Wednesday.

    "The budget was held hostage because of the firefighters' contract," said commission Chairman Michael DiTerlizzi. "I don't think that was fair. To negatively affect the budget because of your stand on the firefighters' contract is wrong."

    The commissioners had voted 3-2 to reject the fire rescue budget during a four-hour hearing Tuesday night before Commissioner Lee Weberman changed his mind and agreed to support it.

    The turn of events reflected a philosophical difference about the proposed firefighters' contract, which previously had been limited to closed sessions on union negotiations, between the three commissioners elected in 2000 and the two elected in 2002.

    Standing firm in their opposition to the fire rescue budget were Commissioners Sarah Heard and Susan Valliere. In the fall 2002 elections, Heard and Valliere defeated incumbent commiss- ioners who had enjoyed strong support from a large number of county fire rescue workers.

    However, Heard and Valliere both said their opposition to the fire rescue budget and the proposed contract had nothing to do with politics. Instead, they said, the three-year pact is overly generous to the union members at the expense of the county taxpayers.

    Firefighters, paramedics and other rescue workers would get a 3 percent raise and qualify for a 5 percent merit increase each year under the proposed contract, said Chip O'Hara, the union president.

    A starting fire rescue worker would receive $31,846 a year under the proposed contract, county records show.

    In addition to opposing the proposed salary increases, Heard and Valliere said they were against some of the benefits included in the contract. They declined to disclose specifics because the commissioners have been discussing the contract in closed sessions.

    "If they had supported me, I still could not support this contract," Valliere said about the firefighters union. "It's out of step with what the county can afford and with what the rest of the county employees are getting. I just think that it's a bad precedent. I think it's an unreasonable contract. There are provisions in the contract that I think are outrageous. I think it's too much money."

    Heard said, "Of course they deserve pay increases, but not exorbitant ones. That's what I'm fearful of, that we're just blowing taxpayer money by giving salary and benefit increases that far outstrip the national average."

    Although Heard denied holding a political grudge against the fire rescue workers, she said, "It was very demoralizing for me to be publicly opposed by public employees."

    Weberman said he opposed the $391 million budget for the 2003-04 fiscal year in principle because he thinks county government is growing too much faster than the county's population.

    However, Weberman said he changed his mind on the fire rescue budget because the commissioners would have looked "silly" if they had been unable to pass it. He joined DiTerlizzi and Commissioner Doug Smith in voting for the fire rescue budget.

    A ratification vote by the 230-member Martin County Firefighters Association on the proposed contract is set for today and Friday, O'Hara said.

    If the union members ratify the proposed contract, it would be presented to the county commissioners for a final vote on Oct. 7, said Linda Skelton, the county's human resources administrator.

    DiTerlizzi said he thinks the fire rescue workers deserve the salary and benefits increases they would get if the proposed contract is approved.

    "When somebody dials 911, they want a professional, highly trained fire rescue public servant to come and respond to either save their life or save their possessions," DiTerlizzi said. "We have a highly trained, professional group of people that deserve the right to be able to live in the community where they work."

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