Largo 'Furloughs' Face Even More Scrutiny as Black Seeks Information
by Leo Coughlin
LARGO - The controversy over whether Largo can furlough certain of its employees who are working under the terms of a contract bargained with the city is alive and well.
In the latest development, Commissioner Mary Black queried Henry Schubert, an assistant city manager, on the subject early this week and asked him to cite the provision of Florida Statutes that allows the city to breach the contracts.
Schubert said, in a budget hearing before the commission, that the city would grant the 4 percent raises in accord with the contracts but would then effectively nullify pay increases by imposing furloughs or reducing work hours.
He maintained that Florida law allowed that.
A lawyer for one of the unions has indicated that legal action will be pursued.
Schubert was unable to cite any provision of Florida law in answer to Black's request, but said that he was relying on the advice of a lawyer, Thom Gonzalez, who he said had a long and storied career as a labor lawyer representing management.
Schubert said that although he was unfamiliar with the niceties of the law, it was his understanding that the city's strategy was covered by the provisions of Chapter 447 of Florida Statutes.
That portion of Florida law is extensive and beyond the bare statute in all its varieties there undoubtedly have been court decisions and interpretations that go beyond the plain language of the law.
But what seems to be pertinent to the Largo situation apparently is contained in FS447.209 which relates to "Public employer's rights."
It says, in pertinent part, "It is the right of the public employer to determine unilaterally the purpose of each of its constituent agencies, and exercise control over its organizations and operations. . . . It is also the right of the public employer to direct its employees . . . and relieve its employees from duty because of lack of work or for other legitimate reasons."
That last phrase may provide the city the authority it claims. But the statute then immediately goes on to say - "However, the exercise of such rights shall not preclude employees or their representatives from raising grievances, should decisions on the above matters have the practical consequence of violating the terms and conditions of any collective bargaining agreement in force . . ."
Of course, it is well settled in law in the U.S. Constitution and at the highest level of appeal that the obligation of contracts cannot be impaired. But again, that is open to interpretation, one such argument being that governments have a right to maintain themselves.
Another part of Florida Statutes could come into play with the Largo situation. That is Chapter 447.4095 which is titled "Financial urgency."
It says - "In the event of a financial urgency requiring modification of an agreement, the chief executive officer or his or her representative and the bargaining agent or its representative shall meet as soon as possible to negotiate the impact of the financial urgency. . . ."
In case of an impasse following this, there is prescribed process.
The Largo case may hinge on the words "financial urgency."
The city does have a budget crunch, but it has an enormous surplus amounting to some $14 million.
One element that may have spurred Black to ask Schubert for a citation to the state law is Schubert's apparently smug and self-assured statement to the commission that the city could breach the contracts without any problem.
The contracts are with the Communication Workers of American union which represents most city employees and the Police Benevolent Association. The contract with the fire fighters runs out at the end of the month.
Union contracts in place were negotiated for a three-year period including the raises and with an economic crisis for the city clearing looming at that time.
One aspect of the City Commission meeting Tuesday night revealed that the fire services agreement with Belleair, approved by the commission, incorporates the aspect that Belleair may pay less than the $453,399 annually it bargained for.
The Largo agreement with Belleair stipulates that there could be a restricted increase in the future but also defines the possibility of a decrease "in the event (Largo) incorporates additional service areas or fire districts."
Belleair decided to end its agreement with Belleair Bluffs to go with Largo for economic reasons and this in turn led to the Bluffs terminating its own fire department and signing up with Largo for fire services.
On top of that, Largo will probably wind up providing fire services for the unincorporated areas immediately south of Belleair Bluffs, now covered by the Bluffs.
Largo will be paid by the county, itself teetering on the edge of financial crisis, for covering the unincorporated area.
Belleair's Town Commission is scheduled to take up and give final approval to the agreement at its meeting tonight. And Belleair Bluffs is just a step away from concluding an agreement with Largo.
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