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Firefighters, city in dispute over collective bargaining rules

Friday, August 6, 2004 by

Without a breakthrough soon, union chief says firefighters will wait for FY05-06 budget

The Austin Fire Department, with a 97-percent satisfaction level in a recent citizen survey and plans to open new fire stations in Circle C and Del Valle this year, presents one of the rosier departmental scenarios for city leaders. Yesterday, Chief Gary Warren offered the department’s proposed FY04-05 budget of $89.3 million, up from $84.1 million for the current year. That figure includes a 3.5 percent pay raise—which all city employees will receive if the City Council adopts City Manager Toby Futrell’s proposed budget.

The amount does not include increased wages that firefighters might have gained under either collective bargaining or another type of negotiation with the city. Police officers will receive an extra 2 percent under terms of their agreement with the city, but that is not the case for firefighters.

Firefighters won voter approval in May for collective bargaining and expected that their next official conversation with city management about their wages and benefits would happen under collective bargaining rules. However, those talks have not begun due to a disagreement over actions the City Council may or may not be required to take under state law. If that impasse is not resolved soon, it is unlikely that there will be any negotiations between city management and firefighters until next March.

According to Mike Martinez, president of the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters, “We were always hopeful that we could use collective bargaining right away, but the City Council has to enact that before we can use it.” He said some may accuse the union of engaging in political posturing, “but we believe that our position is correct.” He said collective bargaining rules require the union to notify the city 120 days in advance if they intend to ask for negotiations on wages and benefits. But the firefighters believe they cannot do so until the city takes some action to show that collective bargaining is in effect—or until 30 days after the beginning of the next fiscal year after voters approve it. Under that scenario, he said, firefighters will deliver their letter on November 1 and negotiations would start next March.

Firefighters are not willing to negotiate with the city unless the city agrees that mediation and arbitration rules under collective bargaining are part of the process. The city will not agree to waive the requirements of the letter, nor do management team members want to agree to the mediation and arbitration process, Martinez said. Several city representatives confirmed that that was their understanding also. Martinez said he wanted to tell In Fact Daily about the dispute because he thought Council members were only getting one side of the story. “It’s my understanding that they’re being advised we missed some kind of deadline,” he said. But the firefighters believe no such deadline could have passed.

“We have made it very clear that we are ready to resume negotiations with the union,” said Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza. He said the city’s legal advisors have advised would-be negotiators that the City Council did not need to act in order to put collective bargaining into motion.

City Attorney David Smith concurred with the statement that the city has refused to waive the 120-days letter, but he said he did not know why the city was taking that position.

Council approves final music network check to ACTV

Goodman confirms she won't run for re-election next spring

The Austin Music Network will receive its final $15,000 from the City of Austin, allowing the network to continue operations through the end of its contract on September 30. Although the final vote to advance the final payment was 7-0, the discussion over the best way to ensure that its programming remained on Channel 15 rekindled some of the old arguments over the merits of the network. During the debate, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman mentioned in passing what many City Hall observers have believed for some time: she won’t be running for another term on the City Council. Goodman will have served 12 years when her term ends next spring.

The measure approved by the Council will send the final check for the network to Austin Community Television, which will offer its administrative services to AMN for the next few weeks. “We will assist the Council by providing managerial and administrative support for AMN until the end of the contract with the city,” said ACTV board representative Detine Bowers. “ACTV managerial and administrative support means that our proven, professional experience insures that the AMN operations stay within the proposed budget.”

That does not mean that AMN will have to leave its building on the old Robert Mueller Airport site before September 30, nor does it mean that any AMN programming will be carried on ACTV. The discussions about any of the network’s shows finding a new home on ACTV are still in their early stages. “There already exists music programming on ACTV,” said ACTV Executive Director John Villarreal. “Some of the people over at AMN making music shows are concurrently ACTV producers themselves. There’s no difficulty in giving additional music programming on our channels.”

Goodman moves to ensure free speech policies continue at ACTV

Before voting to give the final payment to ACTV, Goodman wanted to make sure that the association with AMN would not violate the non-commercial, content-neutral status of the access channels. After hearing from Assistant City Attorney David Peterson and from ACTV producers, Goodman eventually moved to direct the City Manager to send the remaining funds to ACTV “in compliance with ACTV’s free speech policies.” The resolution also calls for an analysis from the City Manager’s office of the possibility of transferring AMN programming to other access television venues. The Council further requested that the City Manager take steps to guarantee that music programming remains on Channel 15 after September 30, until a new content provider can be secured. If the city allows the channel to cease programming, or “go dark,” it might allow Time Warner Cable to claim that the city was not properly using the channel and try to take control of the station for commercial programming.

City Manager Toby Futrell assured Council members that a viable signal could be maintained on Channel 15 using the existing resources and staff of Channel 6, the city’s municipal government channel. “After September 30, if nothing is formally in place to take over Channel 15, then we have a backup administrative plan in place to keep Channel 15 rolling until we can complete these negotiations. So the channel is protected and safe,” said Futrell.

McCracken raises questions about future requests for funding

The future of both AMN and Channel 15 beyond the end of the current contract reignited an old debate between the Mayor Pro Tem and Council Member Brewster McCracken. McCracken questioned the wording of the resolution offered by Goodman, which provided for the possibility of transferring AMN programming to other access television venues. McCracken’s question centered on whether it would involve “tax dollars” for the network after September 30. “I include as tax dollars taxes that are collected from hotels as well as those that are collected from property owners,” said McCracken, referring to the city’s hotel-motel bed tax used to fund grants to cultural arts organizations. Goodman wanted to protect AMN’s ability to apply for those funds in the future in a competitive fashion with other non-profit arts groups.

“I don’t think that there is a legitimate rationalization for precluding AMN for some reason,” she said. “It’s demonization of the network, to me, more than protecting Austin taxpayers for having to pay for something you don’t believe should be paid for by us,” she said.

McCracken countered that the city’s scarce dollars for arts funding should not be diverted to a network that is of questionable benefit to the city. “There are a lot of cultural arts groups that compete for these funds. I am on record that I would prefer that those dollars be used to support such things as sending Austin musicians on national tours, or advertising campaigns for Austin music. I don’t believe that by choosing to spend them on AMN gives us the best bang for the buck on music.”

Council Member Daryl Slusher intervened in the dispute, attempting to steer the discussion back to the short-term future of the network. “Prior to the arts funding process, it would not be appropriate to single out anyone to say, ‘You’re not eligible to participate in that process,” he said. “That seems, legally, a legitimate point to make.” Any decision on cultural arts funding for a future incarnation of AMN, Slusher said, could be made during the regular funding process.

Goodman and McCracken sparred again after McCracken expressed concern about the effect of the negative publicity surrounding the music network. “I personally believe that this was not the best choice on how we promote Austin music. I think we’ve seen Austin music suffer during the period that the Austin Music Network has received millions of dollars,” he said. “On a bigger level, though, this issue has been a distraction that has cost this Council credibility . . . and has created a perception that is completely false, that this Council is not fiscally prudent and stringent. This Council and the city management have uniquely among American cities weathered the budget crisis. We have the lowest tax rate of any big city in the state of Texas.”

McCracken’s remarks drew a sharp retort from Goodman. “Because I believe that we as colleagues should try to live together without too many TV jabs to try to enhance our own image at others’ expense, I’m not going to respond to what I just heard,” she said. “But I will say that it’s because I’m not running again . . . and I think I know that some people out there disagree heartily with what I just heard. “

Goodman is the longest-serving member of the Council, having first been elected in a run-off in June of 1993. Because of the term-limits rules approved by voters in 1995, her last re-election bid required the time-consuming and expensive process of gathering more than 18,000 signatures from registered voters simply to allow her name to appear on the ballot. Both Goodman and Slusher were embroiled in a lawsuit, but both prevailed and later won re-election by substantial margins. The possibility that Goodman, Slusher or both would not seek re-election in the spring of 2005 has prompted would-be candidates to begin laying the groundwork for their campaigns. Goodman’s public admission, although not an official announcement in the traditional sense, could prompt those candidates to step up their efforts.

Which finger? . . Fire Chief Gary Warren told the Council yesterday that his department had become concerned about the higher than average number of fire deaths in Austin in 2003. While San Antonio, for example, had only .32 deaths per 100,000 population, Austin had 1.48 per 100,000. The biggest culprit, he said, was non-functioning smoke detectors. That prompted Assistant Chief Kevin Baum to come up with the “ Put a Finger on it” public education campaign, said Warren The program’s symbol is Freddie the Finger. That prompted Mayor Will Wynn to ask, “Which finger would that be, chief? And City Manager Toby Futrell said the slogan had been changed from its original, but she did not elaborate. Undaunted by the humor from the dais, Warren reported, “In the last 12 months we have not had a single fire fatality,” in Austin. He said, “We know of 11 lives that can be attributed to the Freddie the Finger campaign,” because those whose lives were saved told them they had checked their smoke detector as a result of Freddie. In addition, he said, “Six major cities across the US and Canada are using Freddie to save lives” . . . A hot commodity . . . US Senate Democratic candidate from Illinois, Barack Obama, captivated a shoulder-to-shoulder audience of around 500 in former Land Commissioner Garry Mauro’s backyard last night. As Council members were slogging their way through the intricacies of University area zoning, Obama was spreading a message of hope to a sweaty crowd of well-wishers. In case you missed his speech at last week’s Democratic National Convention, Obama seems to be the party’s newest and brightest star. Council members were on the dais, but Mayor Will Wynn’s wife, Ann Elizabeth, braved the heat, as did aides to the Mayor and Council Members Brewster McCracken and Jackie Goodman. Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department Director Alice Glasco was in the crowd too, taking a short break before returning to a long meeting . . . Today . . . Mayor Will Wynn’s Mental Health Task Force will host a forum to address the mental health needs of the community beginning at 2pm today at the Learning and Research Center Auditorium at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Co-chairs of the task force are Former State Rep. Wilhelmina Delco and former Mayor Gus Garcia. The public is invited to attend. There will be a 3pm press conference at the same location. For more information, call Janice Kincheon in the Mayor’s Office, 974-2250 . . . Appointments. . . Council Member Betty Dunkerley appointed Carol Adams to the Animal Advisory Commission. The following were reappointed by consensus: Philip Haught to the Building and Fire Code Board of Appeals; Tim Hill to the Building and Standards Commission; Linda Shaw to the Electric Utility Commission; Hal Katz to the Federally Qualified Health Center Board; Thomas Combs to the Mechanical, Plumbing and Solar Board; John Hoffner to the Resource Management Commission; and Tracy Dour Atkins to the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission. . . . Recreational go-kart racing comes to ABIA. . . The city will receive more than $60,000 a year for leasing space at Austin Bergstrom International Airport to the operators of a superkart race track. The Council split 4-3 over the proposal, with Council Members Daryl Slusher, Raul Alvarez and Jackie Goodman opposed due to concerns about the safety of the riders of the high-powered go-karts. Iron Rock Motorsports will lease eight acres of parking lot space outside the security perimeter of the airport and plans to make $300,000 worth of improvements for a racetrack. Aviation Department Director Jim Smith told Council members the track was an ideal tenant, since the operators are willing to sign a five-year lease instead of the more common 30-year contract. The airport's expansion plans mean the site is not suitable for long-term development. Officials with Iron Rock Motorsports are sponsoring a demonstration of their sport at the site this morning at 10:30am.

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