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Stalled contract jeopardizes relations between Disney and firefighters


After appointees of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took over Walt Disney World's governing district earlier this year, its firefighters were among the few employees who publicly welcomed them with open arms.

But that warm relationship is in jeopardy as a new district administrator has reopened negotiations on a contract that was approved last month by the unionized firefighters, promising pay raises and more manpower.

A vote on the contract originally was targeted for last month during a meeting of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board of supervisors. But it was never brought up.

Under the three-year contract proposal overwhelmingly approved by 200 firefighters and first responders, annual starting pay for firefighters would increase to $65,000, up from $55,000. It also promised hiring up to three dozen firefighters and paramedics.

At several meetings since the DeSantis-appointed supervisors took their seats this spring, Jon Shirey, who leads the firefighters' union, praised them for visiting firefighters at their stations around the 39 square-mile Disney World property.

The firefighters looked forward to collaborating with the new supervisors and administrator after years of clashing with their Disney-supporting predecessors, and viewed the appointments as "an opportunity for a fresh start," he said.

"Almost overnight, a change occurred that we have never experienced — transparency, open dialogue, the ability to sit down and have our issues heard and felt listened to," Shirey told board members last month. "You have been able to build bridges that were long burned."

The feeling was mutual, with board chairman Martin Garcia saying last month that the supervisors were working with the firefighters to resolve their issues. Even so, Garcia made clear that the firefighters weren't the only district employees the board wanted to support.

"We also need to let the (other) employees know, we love you, too. We care about you. We love you as much as we love our firefighters," Garcia said.

But the delay in approving the contract has alienated the firefighters' union, which last year endorsed the gubernatorial reelection campaign of DeSantis, who recently launched a campaign for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

The old contract expired four years ago, and the firefighters declared an impasse last year when the district's board was still controlled by Disney supporters. The Reedy Creek Professional Firefighters, Local 2117 have warned for years that they are understaffed, which poses a safety risk as the central Florida theme park resort grows bigger.

Board spokesperson Alexei Woltornist said negotiations with the union were continuing, without explaining why they were reopened with a contract already approved by the firefighters and first responders.

"Administrator Gilzean is actively working with the fire department to finalize a deal that offers a competitive compensation package and gives firefighters the resources they need to protect the public," Woltornist said in an email to The Associated Press.

Officials with the firefighters' union did not comment.


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