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Nurses follow suit over prison privatization suit

Thursday, January 26th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Florida Nurses Association has filed a lawsuit against the state corrections department over a prison health care privatization effort ordered by lawmakers in the budget last year.

The nurses are using the same argument that the Florida Police Benevolent Association successfully used to kill a prison privatization plan also included in the budget. A Tallahassee judge ruled that the way lawmakers went about the outsourcing was unconstitutional and needed instead to be the subject of a stand-alone bill.

The Department of Corrections is now taking bids to privatize all health services to the state’s 100,000 inmates. The outsourcing would put more than 1,000 nurses and other health care professionals now working for DOC out of a job, according to FNA director of labor relations Jeanie Demshar.

“We believe that any effort to turn thousands of state employee jobs over to private companies needs to be vetted by the public, with input from those workers,’’ Demshar said in a statement.

The suit was filed on Tuesday in the Leon County Circuit Court, where Judge Jackie Fulford scrapped the privatization of all corrections operations – affecting more than two dozen facilities and nearly 4,000 workers – in the 18-county southern portion of the state from Polk County to the Florida Keys.

Lawmakers are now reviving the prison privatization plan, slated for a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Read the lawsuit here.

Cities want to rollback pension standard OK’d under Jeb Bush

Monday, December 12th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Florida cities said Monday that they are poised to make another attempt at revamping costly pension requirements that emerged under former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

The current Republican-led Legislature may be wary of antagonizing police and firefighter unions, a frequent election-year ally. But Florida League of Cities officials said they hope a pocketbook appeal might drive changes when lawmakers reconvene in January.

“Pension reform is by far the issue that has garnered the most attention,” among city leaders, said Scott Dudley, a league lobbyist. “It’s important to preserve and protect pensions into the next generation of police and firefighters.”

A report released last month by the Leroy Collins Institute gave mixed reviews on the health of pension plans in 100 Florida cities. In Palm Beach County, plans in six cities earned failing, or near-failing grades.

Boynton Beach’s police plan and Palm Beach Gardens’ police and fire pensions were among the 15 percent of municipal plans drawing F’s. Plans in Riviera Beach, Boca Raton, Jupiter, Boynton Beach and Lake Worth earned D’s in the Collins Institute analysis of  financial strength.

The League of Cities is promoting legislation (SB 910, HB 365)  that would effectively lift a standard in place since 1999 that has improved city police and fire pensions. The provision requires that growth in dollars flowing to cities from state taxes on property insurance premiums go to additional benefits for police officers and firefighters.

Cities next responded with such pension sweeteners as cost-of-living adjustments, lower retirement age, or an increased “multiplier” used in determining pensions based on years-of-service, all of which the league says have forced cities to spend an additional $460 million on pension costs since 1999.

Now, as the economic slump has put added strain on city pension investments, taxpayers are paying more in property taxes to meet the demand of the public safety providers’ extra benefits.

This pro-union law also has the tantalizing history of being the first measure enacted by Bush and Republican legislators in Florida, then the first GOP-controlled government of any state that had been part of the Confederacy.

Bush eagerly signed the measure ­- relishing the symbolism of making good in a hurry on a campaign promise made while getting the endorsement of the Florida Police Benevolent Association and Florida Professional Firefighters Association.

Bush and Republican leaders, however, are rarely thought of as being allied with unions. Indeed, Bush earlier this year co-authored an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times, decrying the financial woes of states, putting much of the blame on union contracts.

Bush’s co-writer was Newt Gingrich, now a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.

Matt Puckett, lobbyist for the Florida PBA, said collective bargaining negotiations can resolve some of the deeper financial issues clouding local pensions.  But he said that no legislation is needed that would go so far as to remove the insurance premium tax standard in place since 1999.

“The cities just want to have total control of those moneys,” Puckett said.

Teamsters accuse Florida corrections department of wage theft

Thursday, October 13th, 2011 by Dara Kam

The Teamsters Union is accusing the Florida Department of Corrections of cheating prison workers out of nearly an hour of pay each day, according to a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Labor yesterday.

But the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union that now represents the state’s 20,000 correctional and probational officers, counters that the Teamsters, in an elections battle with the PBA over the prison workers, are “showboating.”

The one-page complaint, filed in Orlando, alleges the state is in violation with federal labor laws because correctional officers are not being paid for the time it takes for them to go through security and receive equipment such as pepper spray before they can clock in to work. They also have to clock out before dropping off the equipment at the end of the day, according to the complaint. The Teamsters are asking the Labor Department to investigate the practice.

“Correctional officers suffer because of wage theft by the FDOC and also because they have had no pay increases for the past seven years,” said Michael Filler, director of the Teamsters Public Services Division. “All officers who put in a fair’s day work are legally entitled to a fair day’s pay.”

Federal courts in other cases have ruled that the time spent before clocking in is compensable, the complaint says.

But the PBA executive director Matt Puckett said the Teamsters’ latest complaint is just grand-standing because the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled on the issue.

Judge rules prison privatization plan unconstitutional

Friday, September 30th, 2011 by Dara Kam

A Tallahassee circuit court judge has ruled that the prison privatization plan included by lawmakers in the state budget is unconstitutional.

Tallahassee Judge Jackie Fulford agreed with the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union representing correctional workers that filed the lawsuit, that the way the legislature ordered the privatization violated state law.

The privatization of 29 prisons in the southern portion of the state from Manatee County to Indian River County to the Florida Keys should have been mandated in a separate bill and not in proviso language in the budget, as lawmakers did in the must-pass budget approved in May and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, Fulford ruled.

“This Court concludes that if it is the will of the Legislature to itself initiate privatization of Florida prisons, as opposed to DOC, the Legislature must do so by general law, rather than ‘using the hidden recesses of the General Appropriations Act,’” Fulford wrote in her order issued Friday morning.

Lawmakers ordered the Department of Corrections to request bids for a single contract for the 18-county region, requiring that the winning vendor spend 7 percent less than current costs to operate the prisons, an estimated $22 million annual savings.

But under existing law, Fulford wrote, lawmakers must include a specific amount of money for the contract “after a decision to outsource is made and evaluated by DOC for feasibility, cost effectiveness, and efficiency, before DOC proceeds with any outsourcing of services.”

Former DOC secretary Ed Buss testified that he had created no such plan and was relying on the proviso language in the budget to move the privatization forward before he was fired by Scott last month.

“As such, the Legislature has by-passed the very safeguards it built into the process that DOC is required to follow when DOC initiates privatization pursuant to substantive law,” Fulford wrote.

In the proviso language, lawmakers also ordered that a private vendor take over the prisons by Jan. 1.

“From the record, it appears that the rush to meet the deadlines in the proviso has resulted in many shortcomings in the evaluation of whether privatization is in the best public interest as it relates to cost savings and effective service,” Fulford wrote.

Fulford made it clear that the state – which already has six privately-run prisons, including one in Palm Beach County – can expand prison privatization.

But, she ruled, “the Legislature may not change existing substantive law by a proviso in an appropriations act.”

Over Gov. Scott’s objections, ousted prisons chief gives deposition in prison privatization lawsuit

Monday, September 26th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Despite Gov. Rick Scott’s attempts to quash his testimony, former Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Buss this afternoon spent two-and-a-half hours answering questions under oath for a lawsuit about a prison privatization effort ordered by lawmakers this spring.

Lawyers for the Florida Police Benevolent Association, who filed the lawsuit against Scott’s administration, had sought Buss’s testimony before a hearing slated for Thursday morning. The hearing will focus on the PBA’s allegation that the privatization of 29 prisons from Manatee County to Indian River County south to the Florida Keys was unconstitutional because it was included at the last minute in the must-pass state budget, which the PBA contends is intended to deal strictly with spending rather than policy.

Reached by telephone, Buss refused to comment.

Last week, the First District Court of Appeals ordered that Buss give his deposition, upholding a lower court decision that the ousted secretary – fired by Scott last month – had unique information related to the privatization effort. Both courts rejected arguments by Attorney General Pam Bondi’s lawyers, representing Scott, that high-ranking officials – almost always named as defendants in court cases – should be immune from having to testify when information is available elsewhere.

The PBA contends its lawyers have been unable to get the information they need from e-mails requested from the corrections department.

PBA executive director Matt Puckett said that lawmakers’ gave Buss explicit directions on how the privatization would be handled but at the same time gave him carte blanche over a separate privatization of all of the agency’s health care services for inmates.

“He just wasn’t consulted,” Puckett said.

Appeals court denies Scott request for second review on deposition of ousted prisons chief

Friday, September 23rd, 2011 by Dara Kam

The First District Court of Appeals rejected Gov. Rick Scott‘s request for a second review of a three-judge panel’s order yesterday that former corrections chief Ed Buss give a deposition in lawsuit over prison privatization.

The appellate court ordered Buss’s testimony yesterday after temporarily halting it last week. The Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents corrections workers, filed the lawsuit over the privatization of prisons in the southern portion of the state.

Lawmakers included the privatization of the 18-county region from Manatee County to Indian River County south to the Florida Keys in proviso language inserted into the budget in the waning days of the session that ended in May. The union argued in the lawsuit that the privatization effort is unconstitutional because the must-pass budget is intended to deal solely with spending – not policy – matters.

A Tallahassee circuit judge ordered that Buss give his deposition, rejecting an appeal from Attorney General Pam Bondi, who represents Scott’s administration.

A three-judge appellate panel temporarily halted the deposition last week but yesterday ordered that Buss, who was dismissed by Scott last month, comply. Within hours, Scott appealed to the full court. This morning, that appeal was rejected.

Scott’s lawyers are arguing that high-ranking officials, named in most lawsuits against the state, are exempt from having to testify in every case.

Scott spokesman Lane Wright said yesterday the governor is fighting the deposition because of the precedent it could set.

“It’s not about this specific case. It’s about all cases. The doctrine protecting high-ranking officials from being deposed is a bedrock principle of Florida law. It’s about the principle of the thing,” Wright said.

No word yet from Scott’s office on whether they intend to take the case over the deposition to the Florida Supreme Court.

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