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    No deal for three to retire early

    A proposal to let three firefighters retain benefits was too limited for the union and too costly for the city.

    By MAUREEN BYRNE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000


    SEMINOLE -- After being accused of playing favorites, the city has dropped plans to allow three firefighters to retire early without a loss of benefits.

    City Manager Frank Edmunds said it was purely economics, not a letter from the firefighters union, that caused him to decide against pursuing an amendment to the Seminole Municipal Firefighters' Pension Trust Fund.

    "I felt (the letter) was premature," Edmunds said.

    Sarasota attorney Dana Watts, who was hired last month by the Seminole Professional Fire Fighters Association, said such an amendment would be discriminatory because it would be available to only a select few.

    "My position is you just can't do that," Watts said. "You just can't create a window and close it up."

    When members of the union heard of the early retirement plan, they hired Watts to explore the issue.

    The city was considering drafting an ordinance that would have provided a special 30-day window for Fire Department employees with 25 or more years of service to retire early without losing any benefits. A second requirement, of being at least 52 years old, would have been waived.

    If such an ordinance had passed, Deputy Chief Paul Hill, District Chief Jim Fannin and firefighter Ron Meyer, all under the age of 52, would have been eligible for early retirement without penalty. Watts said Meyer was not interested in the option.

    Once the 30 days had passed, the early retirement provision would cease to exist and both age and length of service requirements would be mandatory again in order to receive full benefits.

    If all three would have accepted the offer, it would have cost the city about $80,000, city officials said.

    Three weeks ago, Watts wrote a letter to Seminole Mayor Dottie Reeder and other city officials saying the city was discriminating because the plan would not allow for the next firefighter who obtains 25 years of service to retire without a reduction in benefits.

    "The creation of this one-time window of opportunity is discriminatory, and if passed, the amendment could be successfully challenged in court," Watts said in his letter to Reeder.

    Edmunds said that by the time he received Watts' letter, the city already had decided not to offer the early retirement option to the three employees.

    "The financial impact, the eligibility of other employees and time necessary for (Deputy) Chief Hill to be qualified under the existing plan all gave me reason not to proceed with the request," he said.

    The request for early retirement came from Hill, who had asked the city for a deal similar to one given to former Deputy Chief Douglas Meyer. Meyer retired in May 1999 with full benefits after 29 years with Seminole Fire Rescue. He was 47 at the time.

    Fire Chief Dan Graves, who serves as administrator for the firefighters' pension plan, said early-retirement windows are quite common throughout the state. The deputy chief's early retirement actually helped the city because the department was in the process of restructuring and needed to omit an administrative position, Graves said.

    "It saved the city considerable money," he said.

    When Hill, 48, asked for the same deal that was given to the deputy chief, state law would have forced the city to make the same offer to all employees with 25 or more years of service. Union members weighed in by saying a waiver was fine, as long as it was permanent, not just for 30 days, and applied to all its members, not just the three.

    "They've done this once before, and that's what caused the hailstorm," said Lt. Robert Melander, chairman of the pension fund board.

    - Maureen Byrne can be reached at 445-4163 or at byrne@sptimes.com.

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