ORLANDO, Fla. – After years of contentious negotiations, the board of Walt Disney World's governing district now made up of Gov. Ron DeSantis appointees approved a contract for its firefighters on Wednesday and also proposed reducing property taxes.
The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District voted unanimously to approve the three-year contract that covers 200 firefighters and paramedics in the Reedy Creek Professional Firefighters' Association.
The contract, among other provisions, would increase wages by 5%, including raising the starting annual wage for firefighter and paramedics from $55,000 to $66,000. It also would provide $5,000 signing bonuses for workers with three or more years working for the department and $2,500 bonuses for everyone else.
“This issue has been around for some time ... and there have been some contentious negotiations,” Martin Garcia, chairman of the oversight district's board, said at a meeting. “We feel this is a fair, generous and fiscally responsible agreement.”
The old contract expired more than four years ago, and the firefighters declared themselves at an impasse last year with the district’s board when it was still controlled by Disney supporters. Members of the firefighters union have warned for years that they are understaffed, adding that posed a public safety risk as the central Florida theme park resort grows bigger.
The firefighters were among the few employees who publicly welcomed the takeover of the Disney World governing board by DeSantis appointees earlier this year after haggling over a contract for years with a board controlled by Disney supporters. But a delay this summer in approving the contract had threatened that support.
“We were able to get it wrapped up," union official Aaron Colburn told reporters after the meeting.
Glenton Gilzean, the district's new administrator, said at Wednesday's meeting that the district's new budget would cut property taxes by nearly 7%. The cut was made possible by cost savings, including deciding to no longer pay overtime for deputies used exclusively to patrol Disney property, an amount that had grown to $8 million, district officials said.
The DeSantis appointees took over the Disney World governing board earlier this year following a yearlong feud between the company and the Florida governor. The fight began last year after Disney, beset by significant pressure internally and externally, publicly opposed a state law banning classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades, a policy critics call “Don’t Say Gay.”
As punishment, DeSantis took over the district through legislation passed by Florida lawmakers and appointed a new board of supervisors to oversee municipal services for the sprawling theme parks and hotels. But before the new board came in, the company made agreements with previous oversight board members made up of Disney supporters that stripped the new supervisors of their authority over design and construction.
Disney sued DeSantis and the five-member board, asking a federal judge to void the governor’s takeover of the theme park district, as well as the oversight board’s actions, on grounds that they were violations of company’s free speech rights.
The board sued Disney in state court in an effort to maintain its control of construction and design at Disney World. Disney asked a judge almost two weeks ago to dismiss the case, and a decision is still pending.
Board members on Wednesday met behind closed doors to discuss the lawsuits.
DeSantis has touted his yearlong feud with Disney in his run for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, often accusing the entertainment giant of being too “woke.”
Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at @MikeSchneiderAP