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Marion County approves $21 million fire union contract agreement

The Marion County Commission approved a more than $21 million contract with the county’s firefighters union at a meeting on Tuesday.

The contract, approved unanimously by the commission, raises the starting pay of all firefighters and emergency services employees and includes a two percent annual cost of living adjustment and a loyalty incentive bonus.

County Commissioner Kathy Bryant says EMS programs around the country have been dealing with retention issues.

“We've been assured that this contract will ensure it is no longer an issue for Marion County Fire Rescue,” she said.

Union representative Joe Romani confirmed the retention issue was a major factor in the negotiations.

“Our average years of service in Marion is about five years, and that's not a very experienced first responder,” he said.

Romani said one of the points the union brought up during these contract negotiations was a comparison of Marion County’s call volume per station versus other counties in Florida. He said they found Marion County was spread thinner than others.

“That call volume, it translates to a poor sleep cycle, mental stress, mental health, substance abuse, marriage, family issues,” he said. “It's part of the reason why in January we lost two of our members to suicide.”

“There's still work to be done to make the work environment supportive, encouraging and protective of the employees, especially in this field where, you know, you're dealing with sometimes some really stressful things and some really, really hard things,” Romani said.

The fire department and the commission recently attended a growth workshop to discuss Marion County’s growing population. MCFR Public Information Officer James Lucas said the department projected it would need to build approximately five more stations to accommodate everyone.

Lucas said “this contract can do nothing but help” retain personnel to man those new stations.

Fire Chief James Banta said the agreement was “one of the best contracts” he and his team had worked on during his career.

“I think this shows from our board that we are committed to having the best firefighters and the best first responders because we're gonna have to make tough decisions, come budget, because we're approving this contract,” Commissioner Carl Zalak said.

The commission and the union began contract negotiations in December 2022. This agreement will be valid for the next three years, effective June 20.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include Romani’s comments.

Kristin is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.