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Protesters unite in red and blue
Firefighters and sheriff's deputies stand together to fight for better wages and benefits.
By JAMAL THALJI
Published June 27, 2007
From left: Derek Walker, 6, Justin Walker, 5, and Kylie Boyette, 2, don fire helmets as they join their fathers James Boyette, behind kids, and Jess Walker, handing out a water bottle.
[Brendan Fitterer | Times]
NEW PORT RICHEY - It's not exactly the summer of love in Pasco County.
Sheriff's deputies are at an impasse with the sheriff over contract negotiations. Firefighters are at odds with the county on several fronts.
But at least the rank and file have each other.
Pasco's deputies and firefighters joined forces for an unprecedented protest against Sheriff Bob White and Pasco County government on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon.
Standing along Little Road outside the West Pasco Judicial Center, about 200 deputies, firefighters and their supporters were united in everything save the color of their T-shirts: blue for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 29; red for the Pasco County Professional Firefighters of International Association of Firefighters Local 4420.
Drivers honked and waved. So did the occasional fire engine and sheriff's cruiser. A UPS driver really got into it, pumping his fist and chanting "Union! Union!"
The deputies staged their first-ever protest against the sheriff earlier this month. The firefighters haven't protested since the 1990s.
"We take care of each other and that's a strong bond in Pasco County, " said Detective John Connolly, 44, president of the Pasco deputies' labor unit of FOP Lodge 29. "Now people are going to see that and realize that."
The Sheriff's Office, however, is tired of seeing protest signs like "CRIMINALS HAVE RIGHTS WHY DON'T DEPUTIES?"
Said sheriff's spokesman Doug Tobin: "I don't think they help the process."
But Connolly stood by that message. "I don't think that's inappropriate, " he said.
Those particular signs refer to the newly formed union's demand for a revamped discipline appeals process. The union also wants gap medical coverage for retirees and agency mailboxes opened up to union business. Their impasse goes to a July 30 hearing in front of a special master.
As for the firefighters, there's a federal lawsuit accusing the county of shorting them overtime pay, two unfair labor practice complaints pending and a hearing Friday on their contract impasse. Health insurance and wages are key among those issues.
"When you combine the lowest wages with the highest health insurance premiums, " said Pasco Fire Rescue Captain Ralph Grant, 42, president of IAFF Local 4420, "it makes for a tough sell to keep people here."