Boca group stands up to union, City Council

A newly formed citizens group in Boca Raton warns that the city faces a financial “tsunami” unless it addresses various issues in its budget — in particular, firefighter pensions.

“Boca is heading for a tsunami regarding public safety,” said Betty Grinnan, who formed the group with another resident, Judith Teller-Kaye.

“We formed Boca Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility because we believe that the City Council needs to take a hard look at fire and other public safety compensation — salaries, perks, work rules, benefits and pensions — and must address the yawning pension funding gap,” Grinnan said in one of two email newsletters.

The grassroots group has at least one achievement to its credit. Mayor Susan Whelchel told members of the Federation of Boca Raton Homeowner Associations Tuesday that firefighter pensions are back “on the council’s agenda.”

“And I will tell you this,” the mayor added. “When [the issue] comes back to the City Council, it will be a priority.”

Meanwhile, John Luca, president of the city firefighters union, said he feels his members are being targeted in the group’s newsletters — this on the heels of the recent city election, when the union took serious heat in a nasty City Council race.

The union gave its endorsement to incumbent Anthony Majhess, a former Boca firefighter who now works for county Fire-Rescue. Majhess’ challenger, Frank Chapman, who was endorsed by Whelchel and City Council members Susan Haynie, Constance Scott and Mike Mullaugh, sought the endorsement, but didn’t get it.

“We had our good name dragged through the mud during the election,” Luca said. “It was a campaign that made us appear to be bad people.”

But Grinnan said her group’s effort is not personal. She praised the city’s Fire Rescue Services Department, saying, “You can’t blame the firefighters. Their contract has been signed. It’s not a question of them not deserving it. But who looks out for the Boca citizens?”

The real feud is with the City Council, she said, suggesting that firefighter pensions were largely ignored as a cost-cutting issue during the council’s annual goal-setting sessions.

“The council met for two days to discuss long-range plans,” Grinnan said. “And when they wrapped up, the pension [issue] was not in any of them.”

Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility even met with council members and made a Power Point presentation, she said, but it received “no support.”

Click image to view full presentation:

“They kept talking about raising revenue instead of addressing one of the city’s largest expenses,” she said.

Whelchel admitted that, during the goal-setting session, “I discovered that the pension issue was not there. I don’t know what happened. But no one did anything malicious. Things were moving along very rapidly.”

Haynie, the council’s deputy mayor, said the facilitator who led the goal-setting sessions put the pension issue “on the horizon.”

The mayor promised the council would revisit pension expenses during upcoming budget talks, drawing Grinnan’s praise.

“I think we are very happy that it’s back on the agenda,” Grinnan said. “Today, we feel there is hope.”

The city manager asked the union to reopen contract negotiations with firefighters in just the area of pensions, Whelchel said, but the request was rejected. A contract cannot be reopened for changes unless both sides agree.

“We have no plans” to reopen contract bargaining, Luca said, noting that firefighters have twice agreed to go back to the table and reduced their pay raises and increased their contributions to the pension fund from 9.2 percent to 10.2 percent.

“The city has given the minimum amount allowed by the state to the pension fund,” Luca said. “Now that times are bad, the costs are high.”

He said he, too, is “concerned about the future,” both for the city’s financial condition and for young firefighters.

Whelchel said she rejected the concept of “busting” the firefighter pact: “There have been cities that busted the contract when they are on the verge of bankruptcy. The good news is we are not going broke. The bad news is we are not going broke – so we can’t bust the contract.”

Grinnan admitted her group offered no solutions for the city’s fiscal problems, but will, through its newsletters, keep the community’s financial issues in the public eye.

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