CLEARWATER - That the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union chose last Wednesday's City Council meeting to begin defending its members from efforts to reduce property taxes levied on Clearwater's citizens is not surprising; the April 4th Council meeting included the public presentation of the recommendations of the city's Budget Task Force.
CWA Local 3179 President Steve Sarnoff had circulated a flyer to his constituents prior to the Council Meeting; "UNION RALLY TO SAVE OUR JOBS" was the title. The flyer stated, "The Budget Task Force recommendations will be presented to the City Council. The City Council's decisions will affect our futures. They need to hear our voices, to see our faces, and they need to see our children who depend on us." The flyer urged union members and non-members to attend.
CWA Local 3179 represents "almost 900 city employees, including part timers" Sarnoff claimed, but he said that union membership totals about 350. Sarnoff said that he called the rally "to generate emotions and a sense of solidarity among union members, and to kick off public education of the citizens."
About 50 city employees showed up at the rally, held on the steps of City Hall one hour before the Council meeting.
Sarnoff kicked-off the rally peacefully; "We have no enemies. We have nobody to hate," he said. Sarnoff explained that the tax-cutting movement is not limited to Clearwater; "This has been a national movement that has been funded by people with nefarious reasons and motivations for what they're doing. None of our officials are part of this group, but some of our citizens who have been most outspoken are."
Sarnoff had invited Clearwater's elected officials to speak at the rally; Mayor Frank Hibbard, and Council members Carlen Petersen and John Doran took him up on the offer.
Hibbard first asked those gathered for their help; "All of you know your jobs better than any of us, you do them every day" he said, "If there are ways that we can be more efficient, you need to come forward with those… If there are ways we can be better, we need to know that and we need to reward people for innovative cost-saving ideas."
Hibbard also tried to assure the employees of their value to the city; "We are committed to being a good employer and keeping the valuable employees that have incredible knowledge," he said.
"It's a balancing act and right now I know you're hearing scary things out there," Hibbard explained. He described lobbying efforts with the State Legislature to retain local control of the city's budget. "I don't want you to go away here today being concerned. We need to continue to be a team and provide our customers, the taxpayers of Clearwater, the top services that they have come to expect," Hibbard said.
Hibbard, Doran and Petersen left for the Council meeting, and the CWA continued their rally before filing into Council Chambers.
Following the Budget Task Force presentation, which recommended a number of cost-saving initiatives including capping employee health benefits and converting to a defined contribution retirement plan, Sarnoff addressed the Council. He served notice that the CWA would fight some of the Task Force recommendations; "We want to continue to work with you. We understand that there's issues in the Budget Task Force report that we will be involved in because they have a direct effect on our lives and our futures, and we will do what's necessary to defend our benefits," he said.