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Putnam pushes for pay raise for Florida's forestry firefighters

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam continues to push for pay raises for the state's forestry firefighters, an idea that was vetoed earlier this year by Governor Rick Scott.

Derek Buchanan, director of policy and budget for Putnam's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said Friday the raises are part of a $10 million firefighting-related budget proposal that will go to lawmakers for the 2016 session.

"This year's budget request seeks to recognize our hard working forest service employees that risk their lives each day to protect Florida citizens and their property," Buchanan told executive-branch and legislative staffers while giving an overview of the agency's 2016-2017 funding requests.

The department was among a number of agencies presenting requests Friday.

Putnam's department, seeking a 4 percent overall increase in funding, is also asking for: $26 million for water quality projects and to implement and monitor agricultural "best management practices" statewide; $25 million for the Rural and Family Lands Protection program; and $18.7 million to help fight citrus diseases. The request also seeks to add the equivalent of eight full-time employees to oversee the agricultural "best management practices."

The $10 million proposal is expected to provide the more than 700 certified forestry firefighters and 200-plus support staff with $2,000-a-year increases. The majority of the money would help the agency update firefighting equipment, Buchanan said.

Earlier this year, the Legislature put about $1.6 million in the 2015-16 budget for the raises, but the line item was cut by Scott.

Scott told reporters after signing the overall budget in June that he has advocated for performance bonuses for state employees. However, at the same time, Scott defended $2.6 million in pay increases that were included in the budget for employees of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles as "they're seeing a shortage of applicants, and so that was the rationale."

Putnam, who has called the forestry firefighters an "elite group," blasted Scott for the cut.

"They're demonstrably underpaid relative to peers," Putnam said in June. "And I'm even more disappointed that it was not applied consistently. The helpful people who take your driver's license photo were allowed to receive a pay raise, and our forest firefighters who put their lives on the line were not."

State forestry firefighters have an average annual wage of $27,000. The raises are seen as a means to reduce turnover in the agency.

The Florida Forest Service has sent nearly 550 firefighters and workers to help suppress and maintain fires in 11 other states this year.

House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, said during a meeting last month that he expects lawmakers to again include the raises in the budget.

"The tip of the spear, as it related to giving those guys and gals raises, started right here," Albritton said of his subcommittee and the vetoed allocation. "Obviously, this year I wouldn't believe that we'd have a change of heart."