Former firefighters at airport OK deal; Options are to wait for a pension or get a lump sum

The dozen unionized firefighters at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport who lost their jobs last year after a private firm was hired have reached an agreement that will end nearly a year of controversy over fire control operations at the airport...


The dozen unionized firefighters at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport who lost their jobs last year after a private firm was hired have reached an agreement that will end nearly a year of controversy over fire control operations at the airport.

The settlement provides two options for the 12 firefighters. The first is to leave their pensions alone and begin receiving monthly payments at the normal retirement age of about 62. The second option is to take an immediate lump-sum but discounted payment.

It is similar to the payout options a lottery winner has in Florida: Take less now and invest it, or take guaranteed payments over time.

"I think it's a fair agreement for both parties, and I think it'll finally put this issue behind us," Frederick "Rick" Piccolo, the airport's chief executive officer, said just before the Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority unanimously approved the agreement Monday.

Piccolo expects most of the firefighters to take the first option, but there were no union representatives at Monday's meeting to indicate which option might be more popular.

The airport authority moved in August to privatize the firefighting duties. The 12-man in-house force, along with its salaries and pension contributions, was replaced by a three-year contract with national emergency services company Rural/Metro Inc. that required the company to staff the airport's fire station with 16 firefighters, including a chief.

Rural/Metro started Oct. 1 and is receiving $825,000 over three years. The move saved the airport more than $325,000 in salaries and pension contributions in the first year.

Initially, the 12 members of the Suncoast Professional FireFighters & Paramedics did not go quietly. Their union spent $4,500 on newspaper advertising, organized a picket and dug into a 1979 arrest involving of one of the then-board members supporting the decision.

Eventually, then-Gov. Jeb Bush replaced two members of airport's governing board -- Robert Waechter and Susan Miller Kelly -- and replaced them with Eric Robinson and Leslie Wells.

Waechter, who was arrested in 1979 for burglary during a construction dispute, and Kelly were both targets of intensive lobbying by the disgruntled firefighters.

A governor's spokesman at the time said the choices were unrelated to the firefighters' lobbying efforts.

The union also brought into question whether the private firefighters had the proper state certifications.

Piccolo maintained that Rural/Metro's firefighters did not require state certification -- they have since earned it anyway -- because it pertains to structural fires, which would be handled by Sarasota or Manatee county's agencies even if they occurred on airport property.

AIRPORT STORES' UPGRADES PLANNED

The Paradies Shops unveiled its $1.6 million plan to upgrade Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport's gift shop and airside newsstand, and to add a Dunkin' Donuts outlet, in exchange for a 12 1/2-year extension to its lease.

The business has been been operating those concessions at the airport since 1981.

The upgrades come on the heels of last month's proposal by food service provider HMSHost, which would spend $2.8 million to upgrade the airport's eateries, including a full-service Starbucks and a restaurant with a golf motif in exchange for a 15-year lease extension.

-- Tom Bayles



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