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Pinellas deputies approve union to gain leverage in negotiations

By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 22, 2003

LARGO - Sheriff Everett Rice must welcome some new players to the negotiating table after his deputies voted overwhelmingly this week to be represented by a union for the first time.

Deputies chose the Fraternal Order of Police to represent them in contract negotiations. The decision comes just months after the Florida Supreme Court made a historic ruling giving deputies across the state the right to bargain collectively.

Pinellas follows Palm Beach County, which voted for a union last week, and sets the stage for more than two dozen other departments considering unions after the January court ruling.

Deputies hailed the vote as a victory, saying they now stand a better chance of higher salaries and more benefits. But that boost ultimately may mean more demands on county taxpayers.

"I think it's going to push the cost of business up a little bit, but we can work with it," Rice said.

When the ballots were counted Thursday in Tallahassee, road deputies and eligible officers strongly supported having a union.

The FOP received 399 votes - the most from 752 eligible road deputies. The Police Benevolent Association followed with 134 votes. Rice received support from 116 deputies, who voted to keep the status quo, and four ballots were voided. The rest of the deputies didn't vote.

Lieutenants and sergeants also chose the FOP to represent them, with 70 out of 104 voting yes.

Deputies always have had the right to join a union and many rely on them during times of trouble, such as when an officer is being investigated by internal affairs or for shooting a suspect.

But until January, they were prohibited from having the union represent them in contract negotiations.

Lt. Tim Ingold, a deputy who is also president of Pinellas Lodge No. 43 for the FOP, predicts fewer deputies leaving the department for higher wage jobs with police departments.

"It's a tremendous decision," Ingold said. "Historically, deputies were looked at as appointees, rather than employees. The Supreme Court said, nah, they're employees just like any other."

Ingold hopes the union can negotiate a three-year contract for deputies, improve health benefits and drop the requirement that they live in Pinellas County.

Until this summer, deputies were among the lowest paid law enforcement in Pinellas County.

Rice had acknowledged his deputies were underpaid and in July succeeded in getting them an instant $3,000 pay raise. That brought the starting salary up to $32,000 a year.

Rice's budget already looms as one of the county's largest expenses. He has requested nearly $200-million for fiscal year 2004 - nearly $20-million more than 2003.

County budget director Mark Woodard said it is too early to predict how collective bargaining will affect that budget. "If there's a change in wages and it goes up, obviously that is going to have a budgetary impact," Woodard said. "If you negotiate on working conditions that relate to additional expenses, certainly that has a budgetary impact, as well."

The decision is certain to affect sheriff's departments statewide.

Hillsborough is preparing for a similar vote in the weeks to come. Sheriff Cal Henderson opposes a union but said his deputies must make the decision.

"I'll just educate my deputies, and they will vote their conscience," Henderson said.

Henderson said he doesn't see the Pinellas decision having a great impact on his deputies.

Hillsborough deputies earn a starting salary of more than $34,000 a year - second highest among law enforcement officers in Pinellas and Hillsborough, according to a study by Rice.

Though he campaigned strongly against the union, Rice said he will do his best to work with it.

"This is something new, and I can understand why they want to try it," Rice said. "My postion was that they didn't need it. The majority of them have spoken."

Rice is ready to negotiate.

"It's going to be a change, but it's not going to be a change we can't get over and make work," he said.

- Times staff writer Adrienne P. Samuels contributed to this report.


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