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Firefighter negotiations spur debate in budget vote Council Members disagree on whether savings should be spent The Austin City Council approved next year’s budget on first reading Monday, but not without some heated discussion over funding for the Austin Fire Department. The proposal by the firefighters union to forego a raise for next year won unanimous support, but Council members split over what to do with the money.

Tuesday, September 9, 2003 by

A majority sided with the union’s request to funnel the money back into the department, while at the same time eliminated the quints and squads proposal developed by Fire Chief Gary Warren to cut costs. The new types of fire trucks could be operated with fewer firefighters in certain areas of the city, saving an estimated $1.5 million.

The Austin Association of Professional Firefighters had objected, telling Council members they did not believe the trucks offered the same level of fire service for residents or protection for firefighters. Council Members Jackie Goodman, Danny Thomas, Raul Alvarez and Brewster McCracken all voted to scrap the quint and squad plan. “What the firefighters have chosen to do here is very selfless,” said McCracken. “They have said, ‘we’re going to trade this pay raise…for things which are not related to Meet and Confer,’ knowing then that the Meet and Confer continuation clause will not have a pay raise in it for this year.”

McCracken argued that the firefighters had walked away from a guaranteed salary increase, since instead of being concealed within the budget the amount being allocated by the City Manager was listed as a separate and visible line item. “They were going to get the pay raise based on Negotiating 101 about how these things work…from my experience as a lawyer, when you say, ‘Here’s the money I’m going to offer you,’ that becomes, de facto, what it’s going to be,” he said. McCracken’s contention that the two percent pay hike was a done deal touched off an intense round of verbal sparring. Council Members Daryl Slusher and Betty Dunkerley and Mayor Will Wynn all took exception to that claim.

Slusher was the most insistent, criticizing those Council members who had publicly shown their support for the union’s proposal last month. “It was not a foregone conclusion, at least not for me,” he said. He noted that the two percent public safety premium had been designed to give the city a better negotiating position on securing additional management and hiring rights as part of the ‘Meet and Confer’ process, which allows the city and the union to agree to some changes to state civil service law.

“I’m really disturbed that anyone would go outside those negotiations and assume that the two percent was a foregone conclusion…give up the city’s bargaining position…and then negotiate that away outside the Meet and Confer process,” he said. Dunkerley and Wynn both said the two percent pay hike should have been preserved as an option for the city. “I think this is a great compromise,” Dunkerley said of the union’s proposal,” but I’m confused as to the status of the continuation clause for the contract. The primary reason the two percent was set aside was for that clause. The primary reason to have the clause was to get some aggressive minority and women hiring practices.”

While the city used the Meet and Confer process to negotiate civilian oversight for the police, in the contract with the firefighters union it served as a vehicle to allow some deviation from the strict hiring procedures set out by the civil service law. “The state civil service law describes a way to hire people. What we’ve done in past contracts is we’ve negotiated an alternate way to hire people,” said Fire Chief Gary Warren. While that has played a role in boosting minority hiring in the department, he also noted that “our recruiting efforts pretty much operate outside the contract. We have a lot of people and energy we devote to that every year.”

Representatives of the firefighters union who attended Monday’s meeting said they were somewhat surprised with the focus on the continuation of management rights made in the last contract. “What needs to be clarified is that firefighters aren’t under contract and haven’t been for over a year,” said Mike Martinez, Vice President of the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters. “I’m not sure what it is they’re asking to continue.”

Apart from any impact on future contract negotiations, Slusher had other objections to the arrangement. “This doesn’t help us with our police negotiations…the police have been very forthright about giving us a continuation for the next six months…When you go out and offer a raise through three Council members to one group…it certainly doesn’t help in the negotiations with the other,” he said. He also objected to linking the pay raise for firefighters to changes in the staffing model proposed by the chief. “It would have been much, much better for next year…if we weren’t going to pay that money to the firefighters that the money be banked, but instead it’s being spent,” he noted.

Goodman defended the plan. “Meet and Confer is a separate process from the budget, but obviously since there was money in the budget…that’s the budget that we would have been voting on,” she said. “There was no negotiation. This is the budget process and there are implications for Meet and Confer, but we can’t hammer out Meet and Confer before the budget.”

As for the contention that the city had given away a prime bargaining chip, Goodman claimed public comments by other Council members would have had a similar effect. “If some Council members say they would not have voted for that pay raise…some folks had said that publicly…it would put us in the same position in that there would be nothing to negotiate with.” The vote to abandon the quints and squads proposal was 4-2-1. Slusher and Wynn were opposed, while Dunkerley abstained, saying she needs more information.

Music Network gets reprieve Council Members take note of recent split votes on budget issues After a clash between the Council’s longest-serving member and its newest, the City Council agreed yesterday that the Austin Music Network should receive $150,000 in bed tax money to continue broadcasting while the new station manager looks for other funding. In addition to the station’s longtime champion, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, Council Members Daryl Slusher, Betty Dunkerley, Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas voted in favor of the funding, which comes from hotel and motel taxes, not from taxpayers.

Goodman said the station has received “an extremely positive response from recent contacts made by the new manager,” Louis Meyers, who recently took over AMN. Goodman pointed out that the bed tax money “is not funding that could be spent on health, fire, the police department or anything else in the General Fund. The revenue may be used only to promote tourism and the convention and hotel-motel industry.” She noted that Austin is well known for its music and that the station could play a larger role in promoting that image if given more time. Alvarez seconded her motion.

Dunkerley said, “I said at the beginning of the year I would not allocate city operating money for AMN this year . . . but these are funds that are available to us to be used for tourism promotion. I have a real practical reason for wanting to see this continued,” and she noted that Meyers had worked “magic“ during his short time at the station.

Slusher said since the money was not coming from the airport or one of the utilities, but from the bed tax where there has been some increase in funds, he thought it was appropriate to vote in favor of the allocation. “I think there clearly can be an economic development impact here. I saw from a poll that folks do go out to see groups they see on the station.”

But Council Member Brewster McCracken disagreed with his colleagues, saying, “I believe the Austin Music Network model is broken. There is an opportunity cost in choosing to promote AMN instead of other things.” He said he would rather spend the money on supporting advertising at the Sundance Film Festival. “I think we will not achieve what we would hope to achieve by this use of funds.” McCracken then indicated that he did not want to use “taxpayer money“” on the network.

That statement infuriated Goodman. “This is not paid by taxpayers.” She then outlined once again how the hotel and motel tax, paid by overnight guests at local hotels, must be spent on tourism and the hospitality industry. “I understand your issues, but I don’t know if you’ve watched AMN lately. People are watching around the world. This is not some sort of political poster child that some people have tried to make it. This is not the time to let it drop.” She added that she thought the value of the network is “pretty unquestionable,” except to those opposing the station as a mere political stance. After the vote, Goodman said, “This is not an Austin taxpayer, whimsical sort of subsidized project. This is about redeveloping our economic base.”

Mayor Will Wynn asked a number of questions about reserve funds in the bed tax and finally concluded, “I personally see the reason for funding this through cultural arts funding, but I’m concerned about how we handled the RFP (Request for Proposal), so I will be voting no.” The RFP that Wynn referred to was one that asked applicants if they could run the station without city funds. Those who responded all indicated they would need city funding to handle the job and all were rejected.

Meyers, the new station manager, told the Council that the network is now available in about 40 percent of the city’s hotel rooms. The remainder, he said, do not have Time Warner cable and he is working to make sure the network appears in those outlets as well. After the budget session adjourned, Dunkerley said, “I’d just like to bet on (Meyers). It looks like he knows what he’s doing. He is very professional and I think that shows through. I think he’s giving us something we’ve always needed.”

Although those in the room perceived a considerable amount of animosity during votes on both the firefighters’ budget and the AMN question, Wynn said he did not. “There are varying perspectives on this Council and I think there should be. It’s a very diverse city. It would be pretty weird if the seven people elected at large all approached this complicated budget the same way.”

Slusher said he had not such a level of conflict in budget deliberations since his first year on the Council in 1996. Asked if he thought the budget votes foretold more split votes in the future, Slusher said, “I think it depends on the issue. Danny (Thomas) was the swing vote on some things and I was the swing vote on other things. It seems like one of us is usually the swing vote position. You’ll see different lineups on different votes, but there probably will be more split votes than, say, we got on the Watson Council . . . There’s a whole political realignment that’s going on . . . on these hard decisions.”

On the question of split votes, Dunkerley said, “I predict that we will have 4-3 votes on a lot of things, but it will be a revolving four votes—but it won’t be the same 4-3 all the time.”

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Again . . . The Council will meet again at 10am today to vote a second time on the budget. The Zoning and Platting Commission is scheduled to meet at 6pm tonight . . . Computer problems . . . In Fact Daily has been hit by a virulent virus. We apologize to any of you who have not received your emails or cannot enter the site. We have not changed any passcodes and do not believe that the site itself is infected. But the office computers must be replaced. This could cause some delay in coverage and may mean a day without a daily. Thank you for your patience . . . Early voting report . . . With one day to go in early voting, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir reported that turnout for the special Constitutional Amendment election was exceeding the average of the state’s 15 most populous counties. According to the Texas Secretary of State’s office, Travis County topped the 15 most populous counties in terms of turnout percentage. By the end of the weekend, Travis County turnout was at 2.95 percent, with a total of 15,348 voters having cast a ballot.

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