By Tim Pallesen
Two Boca Raton women were ignored last May when they alerted the City Council that the city’s fire-rescue costs were leading to a financial crisis.
“No one thanked us, and no one responded,” Betty Grinnan recalled.
So Grinnan and Judith Teller Kaye formed Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility to inform the public about what they say is the unsustainable cost of firefighter pensions and salaries.
The public responded, and now the City Council calls pension reform a priority goal. The firefighters union has agreed to discuss the concern.
The turnaround is an example of how citizens can mobilize to influence city hall.
Grinnan, a retired children’s librarian, and Kaye, a retired management consultant, first worked together to push the council to build a new downtown library. Once library construction was under way, they found another issue.
“Boca Raton is obligated for millions of dollars that the city can’t pay for,” Grinnan said.
Pension benefits were negotiated when the economy was healthy and the city expected a higher rate of return from its pension fund investments. The city now has $200 million in its pension fund, which is $122 million short of what it has contracted to pay in benefits.
Grinnan and Kaye sent email newsletters to alert 2,500 residents after the council turned a deaf ear at its goal-setting financial summit last May.
“We want to make sure there is money in the budget not just for public safety but also for things that make Boca Raton special — the parks, the beaches, the libraries and all the amenities that we count on the city to provide,” Kaye explained.
Grinnan and Kaye asked residents who shared their concern to pressure the City Council to act.
“We got a lot of emails saying we can’t go on like this and it’s time to address this issue,” Mayor Susan Whelchel said.
The council reversed itself in July and agreed that pension reform should become one of its goals.
But the email newsletters kept coming to inform residents more about fire-rescue costs.
“Everything they have printed has been accurately described,” Whelchel said. “They’ve done a good job of bringing out the information and educating the public.”
Their news that Boca Raton pays an average of $153,821 for a fire-rescue employee was reported in September as the council was preparing its budget. That salary figure generated more emails from upset residents to council members.
“They have been very effective, and they’re pushing hard,” Councilman Michael Mullaugh said. “We recognize this as a real problem that we have to address.”
Talks now are under way between City Manager Leif Ahnell and the firefighters union to decide whether to renegotiate the current firefighters contract that expires in September 2014.
Grinnan and Kaye offer a laundry list of ways to cut fire-rescue costs that go beyond pension reform to also reduce salaries and eliminate jobs.
To counter their efforts, the firefighters union has launched an informational campaign of its own to win public opinion.
“We want to make sure that citizens realize what they’re getting for their tax dollar,” said John Luca, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1560. “We’ve got a heck of a campaign on our hands.”
The union tells citizen groups that Boca Raton firefighters saved the lives of 53 percent of the residents who suffer a heart attack, compared with a national average of only 5 percent.
Luca warns that cost cuts could jeopardize fire-rescue’s current level of service by making Boca Raton less attractive for qualified job applicants.
“We never want to see Boca Raton become a training ground for other departments where the benefits are better,” he said.
The firefighters union renegotiated its contract twice in the past two years to save the city $2.6 million. But the city agreed each time to extend the contract as a concession.
Whelchel vowed that the council won’t postpone pension reform any longer.
“We’re not going to reopen the contract just for them to give us back a million dollars this time,” she said.
“We didn’t get to the heart of the real issues with pensions before,” Whelchel said. “Now we need to know where our real financial difficulty lies.”
The council formed a task force of financial experts on Oct. 23 to advise the city in negotiations with firefighters.
The mayor thanked Grinnan and Kaye for bringing the issue to the city’s attention.
“The council should have put this into our goal-setting before we did,” Whelchel said.
“I have been remiss,” she acknowledged. “We’re not perfect people, and we probably should have looked at this years ago.”