By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — After the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, much attention and dedication was given to the professionals who rushed to save victims in the burning towers.
Firefighters, police officers and emergency personnel were duly recognized across the nation as the “heroic first responders,” receiving renewed support from community and political leaders who vowed to continue funding their benefit and retirement packages.
Fast forward just a few years later and many communities are struggling to wither the worst effects of a severe economic crisis, drying up municipal revenue and resources that need drastic restructuring.
And as towns and cities sit down with public-sector unions to renegotiate generous benefit packages nationwide, at least one former Florida lawmaker believes many first responders are using the tragedy of 9/11 to push against any significant cuts.
“No one knows better than I what sacrifices firefighters make,” said former state Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, running for the Pinellas County Commission, whose husband is a 34-year veteran of the Seminole Fire Department.
“In the world we live in, with the economy we are in, it’s appropriate to look at everything and have everything on the table when we’re talking about tax dollars,” Long told Florida Watchdog.
On Sept. 10, she told the Tampa Bay Times that firefighters have “taken advantage of 9/11” and had “capitalized on it and the emotion” to stave off cuts to generous pension plans.
“Public safety workers are not always in sync with the organizations that represent them. It’s the union bosses that cause these discussions to go unanswered,” Long told Florida Watchdog.
“Local governments have been lobbied into making multimillion promises that they just cannot keep. We cannot keep on doing, because it is just an unsustainable path.
“I have a problem with the millions of taxpayer dollars that have been wasted, not with the men and women that have been on the front lines every day. The issue is the decisions that aren’t being made, because the truth doesn’t always sound great.”
Long tells stories of being actively lobbied by firefighters who visited the statehouse in full uniform, while their trucks are parked in the parking lot, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
“Any of these kinds of discussion about public employee benefits and the possibility of lowering benefits or even temporarily are going to lead them to defend their value,” said David Matkin, an assistant professor of public policy at Florida State University’s LeRoy Collins Institute, which researches municipal pensions in Florida.
“Nobody does that better than teachers, firefighters and police officers,” said Matkin.
He tells Florida Watchdog that public-sector unions in many Florida municipalities have been the first lines of defense against pension reform, especially first responders.
“One of the ways people do that is through the symbolic benefit of their service, touching on things that get at people’s emotions. They usually use terminology like, ‘We’re the ones running into burning buildings while you’re running out,’” said Matkin.
“These are symbolic metaphors of their potential sacrifices and how that should provide some extra benefits that they deserve.”
Yaël Ossowski is Florida Bureau Chief for Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected]
— Yaël (@YaelOss) September 10, 2012