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Firefighters come out in force To oppose reduced staffing plan

Friday, August 8, 2003 by

A recommendation by Fire Chief Gary Warren to shave $1 million from next year’s budget by changing the way some firefighters are deployed and eliminating some vacant positions has touched off an avalanche of protest from members of the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters . They’re calling Warren’s plans to use newer, smaller fire trucks called “quints” and “squads” that require fewer personnel a threat to the safety of citizens and the city’s employees.

Warren proposes using the smaller vehicles in areas that already have redundant fire coverage. “A squad vehicle has all the functionality of a full-sized pumper truck, but it’s much smaller, quicker and easier to maneuver,” he said. “It is in the staffing of the squads with two firefighters that we receive half of the cost savings show in this proposed budget.” Warren would like to use the squads at Hyde Park Station, Blanco Station, Central Station and Berkman Drive Station. Additional equipment would be located at Central Station and Berkman Drive Station.

In the central city, Warren told Council members, the territories covered by various fire stations overlap. “The density of coverage and overlap of surrounding fire stations is greater in the Hyde Park neighborhood than in any other part of Austin. It is in that very center area that is stacked up so deeply with coverage that we find the Hyde Park Station (Station 9) and the Blanco Street Station,” he said. “These may be the only stations that we ever recommend to have this sort of situation” of being staffed only with a squad. The proximity of other stations would also allow them to respond to calls where four firefighters are needed instead of just two.

National standards call for firefighters to adhere to a “two in, two out” rule when battling a structure fire. That is, for each two firefighters who go into a burning building, two should be outside ready to provide help if needed. This was the driving factor behind a resolution adopted by the City Council in 2001 directing the department to move toward “Task Force Staffing.” Chief Warren says the intent of the resolution can still be met through limited deployment of the squads.

Another factor in favor of the new vehicles, Warren said, was the dwindling number of calls to the fire department that actually involve fire. “It’s a trend nationwide for the incidents of fire to decrease and medical calls to increase,” he said. At the Hyde Park station, only two percent of the calls involved structure fires while 65 percent were medical.

Firefighters are not convinced that the new vehicles with fewer personnel are a good idea. Union President Scott Toupin led a rally on the steps of City Hall Thursday morning with about 50 firefighters to protest the plan. “We tried to have meetings with the fire chief and meetings with the City Manager to let them know how strong our feelings are about staffing in this fire department. Those meetings were to no avail,” he said. “We have not been able to convince the City Manager or the Fire Chief that staffing is an important issue and we need to maintain our current levels of staffing. We’re firefighters, we’re committed to doing our job. But we want to do our job in a safe and effective manner and an efficient manner for the City of Austin.”

He continued his verbal assault Thursday night at the public hearing on the Police, Fire and EMS budgets. Toupin was joined by more than 70 firefighters, many wearing their union T-shirts because they had been instructed not to wear their uniforms. Union Vice President Mike Martinez said the move would roll back years of progress made by the department. “It’s irresponsible. It goes against every recognized standard you have in place,” he said. “It simply is not worth it . . . In fact, this is the biggest setback that we will ever make in the history of the fire department if you put squads in place with two firefighters. We will go back to the 1950’s and 60’s of the Austin Fire Department.”

Martinez also had a verbal shot for Warren. “This is being brought to you by your Fire Chief,” he said. “But I just found out about a month ago that he’s applied for a fire chief’s job in another city. He’s so bought into this plan and believes so much in it that he’s looking for a job in another town.” Martinez did not offer to the Council proof of the allegation. Warren later denied seeking other employment.

Along with union officials, rank-and-file firefighters lined up to tell Council members their concerns about their plan. “The big message that I need to deliver is that two people on a fire truck is a bad idea,” said Lt. Mike Sullivan. “If you think of it ten times, it’s a bad idea all ten times. It’s never a good idea. There shouldn’t be any two-person fire crews.” And residents in the affected neighborhoods also urged the Council not to change the coverage patterns in their areas. “By cutting positions and lowering staffing levels, it only puts them, and us as citizens, at further risk,” said Bruce Nadig of Hyde Park. “I don’t think that we can justify that in any way.”

The fire department staffing issue is just one part of the overall public safety budget, but it is the most controversial. Several Council members, including Danny Thomas and Brewster McCracken, had pointed questions for Warren about the proposal. The Council has two more public hearings on different areas of the budget before a final vote in early September.

Council denies historic zoning In controversial West Austin case

The Council yesterday granted the wishes of a couple who wish to demolish their 1937 house and replace it with a modern residence. The home at 2508 Jarratt Avenue in Pemberton Heights was the subject of controversy at last week’s Zoning and Platting Commission. (See In Fact Daily, July 31, 2003.) Jim Johnson and his wife, Lori, did not learn that their house had potential historic value until their application for a demolition permit was turned down administratively in April. The Johnsons then tried to persuade the Historic Landmark Commission that they should be allowed to move ahead with their plans. But area residents swayed the commission, voicing concerns that the fabric of the Old West Austin Historic District was slowly being chipped away by one loss after another of the old housing stock. (See In Fact Daily, June 4, 2003.)

City Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that the house had been the home of Dewitt Greer, the father of the current Texas highway system, and was part of the Old West Austin National Register Historical District nomination. He added that he felt sorry for the Johnsons, but as Historic Preservation Officer it is his job to decide whether to recommend that such structures be preserved. He made the recommendation in spite of the owner’s objections, which caused Council Member Brewster McCracken to cross-examine him for some time about his decision.

McCracken wanted to know how often Sadowsky had recommended historic zoning over an owner’s objections during the past year. Sadowsky said fewer than a dozen times. Then McCracken asked Sadowsky to explain the architectural characteristics that warranted a historic designation and Sadowsky tried to give him a list of historic designation criteria used to make the determination, including mentioning that it was designed by noted architect Hugo Kuehne. But McCracken was only interested in the architectural characteristics. Sadowsky said, “It’s a southern colonial revival style house . . . it embodies all of the distinguishing characteristics” of the style, and listed those characteristics. The house is one of 1500 structures that contributed to the state’s decision to approve nomination of the district to national landmark status. Only eight buildings in the district are currently zoned historic.

Council Member Daryl Slusher finally rescued Sadowsky. “We may have a process that needs a little work, but I think Mr. Sadowsky was just carrying out his duties.”

McCracken then said he didn’t “want to beat up Mr. Sadowsky, who was doing his job. I think this case shows there are some serious problems.”

Slusher and Council Member Betty Dunkerley have already requested that city staff bring the Council a report on the tax implications of historic zoning at the August 28 meeting. (See In Fact Daily, August 7, 2003 .)

Only two citizens appeared in favor of the historic zoning, neighborhood resident Susan Pascoe and Zoning and Platting Commissioner John Michael Cortez. Pascoe said, “Several of the people who are passionate about this cause are out of town and several elderly neighbors were not able to make it . . . Our support (for historic zoning) is based on the recognition of the value of the homes.” She said they see a continuing loss of neighborhood homes and feel powerless to stop it. She added, “numerous Pemberton homeowners who remodel do it with sensitivity . . . but others build (what would be) more appropriate for Rob Roy.” Although suburban homes are fine in the suburbs, she added, they inject “a jarring note into the character of our neighborhood . . . We regret that Austin does not have a proactive process to designate what,” might be zoned historic.

Cortez, the lone commission member in favor of the historic zoning, said he thought staff had adhered to the city’s process and the Johnsons were unfortunate victims. But he added that they had been treated no more unfairly by the system than anyone else. He added that perhaps the process could use some refinement. “I know you folks have some difficult decisions with the budget, and the fact that when you have cases like this, it does take away from your tax base but perhaps that does need to be . . . changed. But the bottom line here is that you have a staff recommendation—he doesn’t give out his recommendations lightly—and a unanimous decision by the Historic Landmark Commission, folks that really know about historic preservation . . . Cortez then questioned whether such cases should even come before the Zoning and Platting Commission. “I don’t think that there’s anyone—I can’t speak for anybody else—but I don’t believe I’m qualified to go over a group of experts, including city staff.” The HLC vote was not unanimous. Commissioner Frank Ivy voted against the recommendation and felt so strongly that he quit the commission.

Dunkerley told In Fact Daily she had asked for a report from city management so that she could determine not only how much tax the city was losing, but also how much of the burden had been shifted to other tax payers. She added that she wants to find out what kind of programs other cities use and whether they offer the same generous tax incentives as Austin. Dunkerley said she had looked at some small houses the Historic Landmark Commission had just recommended for landmark designation. She said, “One of those houses was built in 1942. It’s going to be very hard for me to vote for something that’s younger than I am. I don’t consider myself historic. If it’s younger than I am, it’s going to have to be really special.”

Council puts off hearing on Patriot Act resolution

Facing a lengthy public hearing on the budget for public safety departments, members of the Austin City Council decided to postpone hearing speakers on the proposed resolution criticizing the USA Patriot Act. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, and Council Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas are signed on as co-sponsors of the measure, which will be discussed next Thursday beginning at 10:00am.

In order to accommodate the expected volume of public testimony, the Council will begin its meeting an hour earlier than usual. Mayor Will Wynn says the 9am start should allow Council members time to deal with the consent agenda and some discussion items before hearing from critics of the Patriot Act.

Goodman said she brought the item forward to stop the erosion of civil liberties. “The reason that I believe so many communities have stood up to take a position on this is because the Constitution, the Bill of Rights particularly, is the bedrock . . . for the ideals that we all reach for,” she said. “It impacts each of us as individuals and that certainly is a local issue. I’m asking, with my co-sponsors, that we look at this issue in a very serious, non-partisan and idealistic context.”

Members of the Austin Bill of Rights Defense Committee have been working with Goodman on the resolution. Dozens of them, along with listeners to the syndicated Alex Jones radio program, showed up carrying signs to support the resolution and oppose the Patriot Act. Committee member Mac McKaskle said they had 78 people signed up to speak. “We will be heard next week,” he said. The delay, McKaskle predicted, would actually work to their advantage.

“It gives us a week to do research and talk to people and find out how it has affected them on a local level,” he said. “We didn’t have that chance today.” Ann del Llano of the American Civil Liberties Union was also not perturbed by the postponement. She said that many people who might want to testify on the matter had not been contacted. Given another week to generate turnout, del Llano said she felt confident that a much greater number of speakers would be on hand for the 10am time certain next week.

For news from last week:

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserve

McKee mulling race . . . Attorney Darwin McKee, chair of the city’s Water & Wastewater Commission, is considering a race for Commissioner Precinct 1. McKee served as an appointed commissioner when County Judge Sam Biscoe resigned the Precinct 1 position to run for judge in 1998. Commissioner Ron Davis was elected in November of that year to fill Biscoe’s unexpired term and was re-elected in 2000 . . . Water use up . . . Director of Water and Wastewater Chris Lippe reports that with the extreme heat water usage has increased dramatically. Prior to yesterday, the largest amount of water consumed this year was 214 million gallons on Monday. Lippe said the system is in good shape to handle the increased load, with a total capacity of 260 million gallons per day. August is normally the month when water usage peaks. . . Changes at Environmental Board . . . Yesterday Mayor Will Wynn reappointed former Mayor Gus Garcia’s appointee to the Environmental Board, David Anderson, leaving his previous appointee, Karin Ascot Bongiorni, without a spot. Bongiorni has served as the board’s secretary and as president of the local chapter of the Sierra Club. Council Member Brewster McCracken appointed William Curra. Mary Ruth Holder’s name was read into the record as an appointee, but she was incorrectly listed as a consensus appointment. She is, in fact Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman’s appointment. Her appointment will be restated next week to correct the error. Although Holder was appointed, her name did not make it onto the city’s web site last night, but Curra’s did. He is an engineer. Other appointments . . . McCracken appointed Karen Friese to the Water and Wastewater Commission. Wynn reappointed Clint Small to the Parks and Recreation Board. The following were appointed by consensus to the Saltillo District Redevelopment Project Community Advisory Group: Rachel Mary Davila, John Limon, State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and Mark Rogers . . . With those appointments, the advisory group is now complete. The Board of Capitol Metro has already appointed five other members . .. . . Tennis pro contracts awarded . . . A contract for providing tennis pro services to the city’s Caswell Tennis Center sparked a philosophical discussion among Council members yesterday. A number of tennis players came forward to promote awarding the contract to the pro who had had the contract in the past, but other citizens urged the Council to award the contract to Love Tennis Company, which the city’s purchasing office had recommended. After listening to public comments, Council Members Brewster McCracken and Betty Dunkerley asked City Manager Toby Futrell how citizen input could be considered on future contracts involving such services. Futrell said staff could implement various methods, including surveys of tennis center users. The Council then voted unanimously to award the contract to Love. Tejas Tennis Company won the contract for services to the South Austin Tennis Center. The Council awarded the contract for services to Yanez Tennis Consultants for the Pharr Tennis Center . . . Diana Granger, who served as Austin’s City Attorney in the early 1990s and left city employment to join a private law firm, spoke for the Purchasing Department as Assistant Director during the tennis pro contract discussion . . . Local Demo press conference . . . A long list of well-known Democrats, including former Mayors Frank Cooksey and Jeff Friedman, have scheduled a press conference for 10am at Threadgill's Restaurant on Riverside. They will talk about why redistricting is a bad idea for Austin as well as other cities that would be divided by proposed plans . . . Democratic rally . . . Democrats activists from around the state are expected to converge on Austin for a Saturday morning rally against redistricting. The theme is “Unity is our Strength,” an echo of comments coming from the Senate Democrats in Albuquerque. Organizers are looking for volunteers, both at the pre-rally festival (10am in Waterloo Park) and the 11:30am rally. For more information, call 478-9800 . . . Jones says goodbye . . . Outgoing Police Monitor Iris Jones said goodbye during Thursday’s City Council meeting. She’s headed off to Washington, D.C., to work for the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP. She also thanked her staff for getting the Office of the Police Monitor up and running. “The seven of us worked hard to serve you and to bring about the process of civilian oversight,” she said after receiving the Distinguished Service award from Mayor Will Wynn. “I want all of you . . . black, brown, white, Asian, to support this process. Because it’s not a black process, it’s not a white process . . . it’s a community process”. . . Turner honored . . . Jones also thanked long-time community activist Dorothy Turner, who received a proclamation from Council Member Danny Thomas . The planned recreation center in Colony Park will be named the Turner-Roberts Recreation Center after Turner and the late Velma Roberts . “I’m really honored for this to take place,” said Turner. “But what is more important than the name is the need for that recreation center. Go ahead on and put this center on the fast track,” she told Council members, “because this center is needed so badly.” The Colony Park recreation center has been put on a list of items that would be postponed under City Manager Toby Futrell’s budget proposal . . . A blast from the past . . . Former Council Member Sally Shipman, who is now coordinator for southwestern states for the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, recently won the San Francisco Marathon for her age group. Shipman served on the City Council from 1983 to 1990. Her husband, Bob, says she trained for months in Houston with her daughter . . . Developers and those interested in land conservation will hold a symposium at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center beginning at 9am today. The conference will continue on Saturday. The executive committee of the Hays County regional planning group will also meet at the Wildflower Center at 4pm .

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