Responding to an investigative report that revealed that the Hillsborough County Firefighters Union’s members exceeded the budget for union leave over he past five years, County Administrator Mike Merrill told county commissioners this morning that there are no irregularities in the county’s contract with the union.
10 News reporter Mike Deeson recently reported that the $668,000 budgeted for union leave over the past five years actually cost taxpayers almost $850,000. He has also reported that union members were allowed under their contract to campaign on county time.
Under the union contract, Hillsborough firefighters are getting paid for what’s called “union leave.” The contract allows them to get paid up to 24 hours for union business even if they don’t need that much time.
In response, Merrill replaced Ron Rogers as county fire chief in April, replacing him with Dennis Jones, the former chief of Tampa Fire Rescue. The county also had its internal auditor review the “weaknesses” involved within the department that he says Jones has already fixed, and that auditor will submit an additional report next year.
And Merrill said that County Attorney Chip Fletcher has reviewed the firefighter contract and has found that “there are no irregularities in the contract.”
Merrill said he actually thanked Deeson for bringing the issues to his attention. “I said to him in a prior interview — if you have evidence, bring it forward. He did. I investigated it. We had the internal auditor investigate it. We had the county attorney investigate it. I hired a new fire chief. We put new protocols in place.”
And Merrill admitted that there was a “shortfall” of union leave time. “We are trying to recover some of that money,” he said. But he didn’t lay any blame on any firefighter or any union head. “They were relying on the prior administration of the fire department to keep good and accurate records of the monies that were being donated to the union leave bank. They did not do that.”
Under further questioning by Commissioner Victor Crist about a possible state investigation by OPPAGA, the Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. Merrill acknowledged that there was a shortfall in the monies allowed for union leave, but he said it was too late to try to retrieve those funds. “I believe we have done everything we can to remedy the situation.”
“OPPAGA coming in here?” questioned County Commissioner Les Miller. “If they want to look at some things going wrong, look at what happened Monday night, behind closed doors,” referring to the Legislature’s funding $300 million worth of local projects, some of them never brought up before any committee during the legislative session.