Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado worked for more than eight years to see the opening of a brand-new fire station in Flagami. But on Saturday, Regalado and his fellow commissioners weren't there to celebrate the dedication of Fire-Rescue Station 11. The reason: They decided to heed the request of the firefighters' union, whose members voted unanimously to ask city leaders to stay away.
Firefighters, still fuming over salary and pension cuts they received as part of the city's new budget, had threatened to protest any city officials who showed up.
“It's a very painful time for us,” said Robert Suarez, president of the Miami Association of Firefighters. “Our firefighters are very upset. We are looking at 20 to 30 percent pay cuts. The attendance of the mayor and commissioners would have created a hostile event out of something that is very positive.”
Firefighter salaries were cut between 5 and 12 percent. But after factoring in cuts to other bonuses for education or specialized jobs, union leaders say the actual cuts are more than double. Pensions were also capped at a $100,000 a year payout. The moves were designed to help close a $105 million city budget hole and avoid laying off one-third of the city's workforce.
The timing of the dedication was particularly dicey, coming just a few days after firefighters received their first paychecks reflecting the pay reduction.
Suarez sent an e-mail Friday to city officials urging them not to show up because the “levels of anger and resentment amongst our men and women towards you is at a boiling point.”
But Regalado, who represented District 4, which includes the new fire station, before becoming mayor, wasn't happy about the request.
“I do resent it,” Regalado said. “At least they could have recognized that I worked many, many hours as a commissioner for that fire station. One thing has nothing to do with another.”
The new station at 5920 W. Flagler St., stands on the same site of the original station, which was built in 1949. But this two-story station is a far cry from the small converted house with a garage that was barely big enough to hold a firetruck.
The main reason Regalado and the other commissioners said they agreed to stay away was out of respect for the family of former Fire Chief Kenneth McCullough, in whose memory the station was dedicated. McCullough's widow Rayleen was at the event, along with her daughter and other family members.
While McCullough never worked at the station, he lived about a mile away. McCullough, who worked for the city's fire department for 32 years, died Aug. 8, 2009.
“I know he is saying, 'I don't deserve this,” Rayleen McCullough said. “He loved the rescue. He thought it was an honor to be a city of Miami firefighter.”
The old station was demolished in 2008 and firefighters worked out of trailers across the street at West Flagler Park Baptist Church while construction was ongoing.
The project was funded by the Homeland Defense/Neighborhood Improvement Bond. Original costs were projected at $3.02 million, but with cost overruns, Regalado estimates the total is closer to between $4 million and $5 million.
Saturday's event was designed as an open house for the community. Neighbors could enjoy free pizza, arepas and ice cream, as well as face painting, blood pressure checks and fire safety education for the kids.
There was also a ceremony unveiling a plaque honoring McCullough. The event attracted several former fire chiefs including Miami-Dade County Commissioner and former Miami City Manager Carlos A. Gimenez. But no members of the current commission or the city manager were there.
“I didn't want to detract from the seriousness of the ceremony,” said Commissioner Francis Suarez, who represents District 4. “As hard as the decision was, I didn't want to further antagonize the firefighters and make them feel we don't value their service. There is no need to pour salt on their wounds.”
Even though word went out via e-mail Friday night that city officials were not expected to show up, some of the firefighters still came Saturday ready to protest.
Firefighter Alex Cardenas and some of his co-workers agreed to put their signs and bullhorns back in their cars at the urging of union and department leadership.
“We were here to exercise our First Amendment rights if need be,” said Cardenas, who has been with the department for two years. “No one really likes to protest, but you do what you've got to do.”
Firefighters said they will continue to speak out against city officials.
“They ruined the lives of over 650 firemen,” said Edward Piderman, a chief fire officer with 25 years in the department. “Not only is it unfair, but it is illegal. It goes against the premise that when you negotiate a contract, both sides need to stick to their side of the bargain. There aren't do-overs in contracts.”
Firefighters have questioned the city for imposing a rarely used state statute called “Financial Urgency,” which gave commissioners the ability to rewrite union contracts for one year. The issue will be debated on Monday in front of the Third District Court of Appeal.
But Regalado also has a promise for the union.
“I'm not going to abstain from any other city events, even if they protest,” he said. “This cannot go on forever. We cannot afford to be a city that is held hostage by a union.”