Largo Generosity in Contracts Seen in DROP Program
By Leo Coughlin
LARGO - With a showdown looming about a month from now (August 31) between the City Commission and the fire fighters union, it is interesting to look at "giveaways" the city has given unions over the years.
Such munificence could be called "gifts," because the unions have no real power to exact leverage on the city.
Basically, unions in the ordinary sense have the power of withholding their labor - strikes - as their chief weapon in negotiations.
But employees in a union working for a government cannot, by law, strike.
One big giveaway by the city is a program called the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), which gives those employees involved in it what amounts to "double dipping" at the pay window.
DROP is available to police and firemen. It works this way -
Once an employee is fully vested with 23 years of employment, the employee is eligible for a pension that is equal to 75 percent of regular pay, payable until death.
But the employee can choose to continue working and go into the DROP program. Regular pay continues and the pension is paid as well, except that it goes into an escrow account. In effect, the employees are collecting two paychecks.
Those in the DROP program are required to finally retire after five years. At that point, the retirement funds held in escrow are then paid in a lump sum and the retirement pay continues.
For example, a policeman or fireman at the pay level of $100,000 can retire with 23 years service when fully vested, enter the DROP program, work another five years and when finally forced out collect $375,000 in a lump payment. Then the pension continues until death.
A man or woman joining the police or fire department at 20 can be fully vested at 43, go into the DROP program and double dip, be forced to retire at 48, collect a pension in due course, go to work for another company for 20 years, collect a pension there at retirement and then collect Social Security.
"It seems like the city of Largo is a money cow for these people," one observer familiar with the program said.
That is particularly true, because Clearwater does not have a DROP program. Instead, Clearwater has something called a "share plan." The DROP program in Largo began in 2000 and some folks who keep up with Largo happenings wonder why the city bestowed this gift on some of its workers.
Members of the City Commission over the years were apparently unaware of the DROP giveaway, although a commission approved it 10 years ago (Harriet Crozier was a member of the commission then), or were perfectly happy that this largesse was being handed out by a generous city. At least, no questions have been raised about it.
As to the city's agreement with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), it expired September 30, 2009. The union has been working on an extension of the existing contract.
Issues arising now that have brought negotiations to an impasse will be taken up by the City Commission after many negotiation meetings and a hearing with a special master failed to get resolution.
What the union wants and what the city balks on will be examined in detail before the crucial August 31 meeting.
Because the union plays a role - inappropriate, many think - in elections with their endorsements, the August 31 meeting will be heavy with political implications.
For example, Crozier, seeking re-election after 17 years in office has always been a union friend. She is between a rock and a hard place now - if she votes to help union, she will be hammered by opponents who want her seat; if she doesn't support the union she obviously will not get its endorsement.
Woody Brown is in a similar position.
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