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Three who warned against fire commissioner pay hikes have voted themselves the maximum allowable salary.
By ROBERT FARLEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001
EAST LAKE -- When they campaigned last fall against the referendum to make East Lake Fire and Rescue independent from Pinellas County, Dan Bobel, Jim Nobles and Chuck Dedman warned that as an independent board, fire commissioners could vote themselves up to a $500-per-month salary -- costing taxpayers as much as $30,000 per year.
It was just one of the concerns they raised, but East Lake voters handily passed a referendum making the fire district independent anyway.
Bobel, Nobles and Dedman ended up being elected to the fire commission themselves, and last month they made their prophecy come true by all voting to give themselves the maximum allowable salary of $500 per month.
The commissioners said the added workload and responsibility of making the transition to an independent district warrants the salary.
"It was an expense they (taxpayers) were warned about would come true," Dedman said.
The lone dissenting vote against the salaries came from Commissioner Bill Cannon, who said he doesn't begrudge the commissioners a salary, but he thinks $500 per month is too much, and he worries where the money to pay for it will come from, since it was not put in this year's budget.
In a letter to the St. Petersburg Times, former fire commissioner Wayne Ferguson also criticized the decision: "Such a move outrages me as a resident and, as a former commissioner, I am embarrassed that this new board would do such a self-serving thing," Ferguson wrote. "The $30,000 in funds now earmarked for the commissioners' own pockets is a misuse of taxpayers' money."
Commissioner Jim Galloway said he voted for the $500-per-month salary because he learned that the majority of fire commissioners in independent districts throughout the state are paid.
Galloway, a retired university administrator, said the fire commissioners decided on $500 per month because that's the maximum.
"I'm not trying to get rich," Galloway said.
At $500 per month, or $6,000 per year, the East Lake fire commissioners are the highest-paid independent fire district commissioners in the county. In Palm Harbor, commissioners are paid $300 per month; commissioners with the Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District, which covers several beach communities in mid Pinellas, are paid $150 per month; and in the Lealman fire district, which will officially become independent this fall, commissioners are not paid at all.
Dedman defended the new salary, saying the added burden of the transition to an independent district requires more work of the commissioners.
"I find I am required to spend more time than before," he said.
"There is nobody in the fire department with the title 'take care of all the paperwork,' " Dedman said. "That falls on the fire commissioners."
There's also more responsibility, and so it takes more time to prepare for decisions, he said.
"While under the dependency of the county, the county had sole responsibility for everything we did," Dedman said. "Basically, we were figurehead commissioners."
No longer, he said.
"There's more on the line," he said.
Bobel, who last fall said a $500-per-month salary for fire commissioners was ridiculous, did not return calls from the Times.
Nobles noted that the commissioners have added a monthly workshop session and already have called several special meetings this year to deal with transition issues.
"A lot of things are going to require more and more of our time," he said.
Dedman and Nobles both added that next year, once much of the transition work is completed and the workload lessened, the salary could be scaled back.
Cannon took exception to the commissioners' voting to pay themselves the maximum right from the start.
Even when factoring in the amount of time spent preparing for meetings, Cannon said, "if a commissioner is putting in an average of 10 hours per month, I'd be surprised."
At 10 hours per month, he said, the salary comes to $50 per hour. That's too high, he said.
Cannon also opposed the salaries because he said they were not budgeted this year. He suggested the commissioners should have held off on salaries until they could be put in next year's budget.
Dedman said that's misleading. The commissioners talked about using money budgeted for the fire chief's salary. Chief Ron Taylor retired at the end of last year, a quarter of the way into the fiscal year. Assistant Chief Jeff Parks will serve as acting chief for the rest of the fiscal year, Dedman said, so the district will save three-quarters of Taylor's $72,960 salary and nearly $35,000 in fringe and travel benefits.
Dedman also contested Cannon's estimate of work time, saying commissioners probably spend 20 to 25 hours a month on district business.
"It goes to the old adage, 'You get what you pay for,' " Dedman said.
- Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or firstname.lastname@example.org.