City firefighters have reached a deal with Mayor Bob Buckhorn that will shield their pay from potential budget cuts in 2013. Buckhorn announced the contract last week, three months after the International Association of Firefighter's Local 754 rank-and-file members rejected its leadership's original contract with the city.
Under the deal, which is similar to those with the unions representing police and city employees, 615 unionized firefighters will not get cost-of-living increases.
But the 415 who qualify will continue to get annual raises based on rank and time served, known as step increases.
About 200 firefighters do not qualify for those salary bumps because they have hit the top of the department's pay scale.
The agreement also blocks the city from reducing firefighters' salaries through the end of September. The agreement is retroactive to Oct. 1.
The low-key deal-making between Buckhorn and the firefighters contrasted sharply with the union's very public 2009 fight with former Mayor Pam Iorio.
That contract froze step increases for a year, a lingering sore point with the union.
Step increases let a firefighter go from a starting salary of $37,140 to the department's maximum pay of $68,365. Until the freeze, that progression took about 12 years. For those caught in the freeze, it will take 13.
Buckhorn has also proposed raising pension benefits for the families of firefighters and police officers killed in the line of duty.
The proposal, which needs approval from the Florida Legislature, would raise the survivors' benefit from 50 percent of the employee's take-home pay to 65 percent.
It also lets children continue to receive benefits until they are 23 if they are full-time students.
Union President M.G. Costello said this contract reflects the department's congenial relationship with Buckhorn. The union campaigned on his behalf last year.
“We have a mayor right now who knows and cares about public safety,” Costello said. “He's been hanging around the firehouses for years. He knows us.”
But Buckhorn also knows he is heading into his 2013 budget, which starts Oct. 1, with another likely deficit.
The mayor said last week that he expects the property tax rolls to be down again, though not as much as in previous years.
When Buckhorn took the helm of city government last spring, his first task was closing a $34.5 million budget gap.
He did that by eliminating open positions and by dipping into the city's financial reserves.
Next year's looming deficit could prove harder to close, he said. But the firefighter salaries won't be part of the equation.
“As mayor,” he said in announcing the new contract, “I will always refuse to balance the budget on the backs of public servants like the men and women of Tampa Fire Rescue.”