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Deadline looms over city, AAPFF contract talks

Wednesday, August 17, 2005 by

Current gap at about $4 million

After several months of negotiations, contract talks between the City of Austin and the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters are still moving at a slow pace, despite a looming deadline, according to sources close to the negotiations. The union’s current one-year contract with the city is set to expire on October 1.

The two sides are still several million dollars apart on pay issues, and have not reached a firm agreement on several other issues, such as working hours and pension contributions. The parties are scheduled to meet officially again today and Friday of this week. When negotiations started in February, the union was demanding about $100 million more for a five-year contract than their negotiators are currently asking. Now, the city and AAPFF are within about $4 million, so an agreement does not seem like an insurmountable burden.

Some members of the AAPFF negotiating team have expressed frustration with the city’s approach to the negotiations, which are occurring simultaneously with the city’s 2006 budget process. According to those sources, the city has not made any significant concessions to the firefighters’ position since negotiations began. Firefighters say the budget presentations highlighting the amount of property and sales tax money being consumed by public safety—with an emphasis on the detrimental impact that could have on future budgets—has been orchestrated to coincide with negotiations.

In Fact Daily contacted Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza, who leads the city’s negotiating team. Garza did confirm many of the numbers for the proposals that have been put on the table, but declined to comment on any specific negotiating position or the status of the talks except to say that he thought it would be possible for the two sides to reach agreement in time for the October 1 deadline. Garza also answered some questions via email.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley has more than a passing acquaintance with the budget process. Prior to running for office, she was Director of Financial and Administrative Services for the city as well as an assistant city manager.

“I'm interested in all of our groups being close to the top of the market statewide,” she said. "I think the main disagreement that we have is just to the size of the request. I would certainly encourage them to make recommendations about how to allocate things. But they need to listen to us about how much money we have to allocate.”

Dunkerley added, "It's like a family. You have different children in the household and you want to treat everybody the same.” When In Fact Daily said firefighters thought that they were getting short shrift when compared to their brothers in the Police Department, Dunkerley said, "I'm thinking in relationship to non-public safety departments. We really do have to be fair."

Asked to comment on whether there might be a concerted effort between budget presentations and negotiations, Dunkerley said she believed not. She said even though firefighters would like for the city to look at police, fire and EMS costs separately, that does not make sense from a strategic viewpoint. The reason, she said, is that the public safety departments cannot be cut while the others can. Dunkerley concluded, “It’s a pretty natural comparison. I've seen it done all over the state."

Some members of the City Council, led by Member Brewster McCracken, have publicly questioned whether the city can afford the amount of money that will be needed over the next few years to pay for public safety services. Currently, police, fire and EMS constitute 75 percent of the city’s general revenue budget. Budget planners say public safety costs are projected to consume most of the city’s new revenue over the next two years and will exceed new revenue after that.

Firefighters point out that their share of the public safety budget is only 20 percent, and that costs and salaries connected with the Austin Police Department are the main driver of cost increases.

Mike Martinez, president of the AAPFF, said he and other firefighters are especially upset about the fact that the city has not highlighted the amount of tax revenues lost when the city gives incentives to big corporations, such as Samsung, to locate in Austin.

“There has to be an equal balance. While incentives are appropriate, we can't blame city employees for their wages being too high of a percentage of the overall tax revenue when we've given away so much of tax revenues. We’re …giving away millions of dollars. It’s hard for firefighters to listen to that (costs of public safety discussions) while being told they consume too much of the taxes,” said Martinez.

Dunkerley said the incentives cannot be compared to public safety costs, at least during the past three years. She said the city's current contracts include specific performance measures and no taxes would be rebated until certain provisions have been met. Dunkerley said it is unlikely that any taxes have been rebated under the contracts and so the city cannot measure the impact of the incentives.

Through a Public Information request, In Fact Daily has obtained documents reflecting both sides’ most recent offers.

On August 3, the city proposed a three-year contract with the following main provisions:

• A 5.5 percent pay increase in each of the next three years;

• The city is offering a total of $4.4 million in salary hikes, divided up in whatever manner the union requests.

• Pay increases would begin on October 1, 2005 and each October 1 thereafter.

• The city offer totals more than $27 million over the three years.

On August 8, AAPFF countered the city’s offer with the following proposal:

• A pay increase in the first year of 9 percent for the lowest rank and proportionally smaller for upper ranks (see below), adjusting pay for the entire department to equalize the steps between ranks to 8 percent, to go into effect on January 1, 2006. This is a new pay scale.

• Raises of 5.5 percent in years two and three of the contract, to be implemented on January 1, 2007 and October 1, 2007.

• An option to extend the contract for two years if neither party reopens.

• A reduction in the average work week to 51.7 hours. Firefighters currently work 53 hours per work week.

• The AAPFF offer totals $31.7 million according to union.

Sources with the firefighters say that since negotiations began, they have modified their demands on more than one occasion to try and work with the city, but say the city has “not moved toward the firefighters’ position since the beginning of negotiations.” However, Garza said: “We believe the most recent proposal best positions the city for future financial planning.”

Another sticking point in negotiations has been just how Austin’s fire department stacks up against other public safety agencies. According to Garza, the city has contracted with an outside consultant to provide an independent market analysis of firefighter pay and benefits around the state. However, AAPFF sources say they disagree with some of the Texas cities used for comparison, saying that the city has been inconsistent in its comparisons.

In earlier rounds of negotiations, firefighters proposed revamping the pay scale in the department to try and resolve a growing gap between the lower and higher ranks in the department.

According to documents acquired by In Fact Daily, under the plan, firefighters in the higher ranks would get a smaller raise. There would be an 8 percent difference between the lowest rank, firefighter, and the next rank, driver; and an 8 percent difference between drivers and lieutenants. There would be a 9 percent raise when a captain was promoted to battalion chief, 2.5 percent less than the current increase.

Firefighters are also unhappy with their pension fund and point to the city’s generous contribution to police retirement funds. According to the firefighters’ proposal, the city contributes 18.05 percent to the firefighters’ pension plan and 1.45 percent for Medicare, for a total of 19.5 percent. In the 1996 contract, the firefighters got 20.05 percent a contribution to the pension fund from the city, but that provision was not carried forward to the subsequent contract.

However, the city contributes 18 percent in pension money for sworn police officers as well as 6.2 percent for Social Security and 1.45 percent for Medicare, for a total of 25.65 percent. Because of the structure of their pension plan, firefighters do not participate in Social Security. However, they want the city to contribute an additional 6 percent to their pensions in order to get the same amount as police officers.

Realistically, negotiators have about two more weeks to reach an agreement in order to meet the October 1 deadline. AAPFF officials say that it will take approximately 30 days for them to educate their union members on the terms of a new agreement and hold an election to ratify or reject the contract.

If a new contract is not in place by October 1, the Fire Department reverts to work rules outline by the Texas Civil Service Code until a new contract is reached.

The voters gave Austin firefighters the right to collective bargaining in May of 2004. Prior to that, firefighters and the city used a “meet and confer” system of bargaining for contracts in 1996 and 1999. Attempts to reach a contract in 2002 failed, and firefighters worked without a contract until last year.

The current round of negotiations began last spring. Full-scale bargaining sessions between the two negotiating teams have been held regularly during that period, and the main sessions have been broadcast over the city’s Channel 6. However, subcommittee sessions are not public, and that appears to be where the nitty-gritty talks are taking place.

Neighbors, Gables reach accord

Long running zoning case settled, heading to Council

A long-running, contentious zoning battle may finally be coming to an end this week, as Gables Residential and the Bunny Run neighborhood in Southwest Austin have reached a compromise on development of an apartment complex and single family housing on land off Loop 360 and Westlake Drive.

According to Nikelle Meade, attorney for the Bunny Run Neighborhood Association, the Gables has agreed to scale back its original plan for a 323-unit apartment complex to a 175-unit complex, plus 41 single family homes. The Gables will also make street improvements in the area.

“It was kind of a hard-fought compromise,” she said. “But after putting a whole lot of work and energy into it, I think everybody’s happy with it. . . I think they were able to work out something that turned out – miraculously – to be a win-win for everybody.”

Meade said traffic in and out of the area was the neighborhood’s main concern.

“If the neighborhood is unhappy about anything, I think they’re unhappy about the traffic,” she said. “But they realize that they are going to continue to be active and work with the City Council and the city management to try to get that improved, as well.”

Negotiations between the Gables and the neighborhood have been going on for more than a year, with a monumental battle being fought before the Zoning and Platting Commission in January. The fracas spilled over onto the City Council’s agenda in May, but was postponed several times, after which both sides were asked to consider mediation.

Meade said the basic agreement was reached about a month and a half ago.

“Of course, all the nitty-gritty is in the details,“ she said. “Just working out how the documents would read took nearly two months.”

Residents in the area had objected to the original plan presented by the Gables on the basis of a1988 agreement between St. Stephen's Episcopal School—the owner of the land—and the neighborhood, banning apartment complexes on the 32-acre tract of land. They said they had been promised that because of the agreement, apartments would never be built there.

The new agreement states that, in addition to the apartments and houses, improvements will be made to roadways in the area, especially Westlake Drive.

“They will extend Westlake Drive so it loops all the way around back to 360,” Meade said. “I think it will help the traffic somewhat because it will allow another avenue for traffic flow and circulation. They are also going to do some improvements to add turn lanes at the intersection of Westlake and Loop 360.”

The agreement will go before City Council this week, and if approved, construction will likely begin early next year.

Meade says she hopes that Council members will be happy to see the parties this time.

“I think the one thing they definitely did not want was all of us up there fighting again,” she said.

In Fact Daily was unable to reach a representative of The Gables to comment for this article.

County postpones action on BFI contract

Biscoe calls for further study, mediation to restore trust

Travis County Commissioners took no vote Tuesday on a performance-based contract with Browning-Ferris Industries. In fact, County Judge Sam Biscoe said the item may – or possibly may not – come up on a future commissioners court agenda.

Neighbors and environmentalists are still vehemently opposed to the contract, saying that Travis County must stand with them when it comes to opposing a landfill expansion permit for BFI. Many, in private meetings and public testimony, said they did not trust the agreement that BFI and the county had drafted, and refused to believe BFI would leave by 2015, especially if the landfill operator was able to get capacity that could take the landfill out to 2018.

Opponents used every piece of ammunition, from claims the county had not done enough to the tearful testimony of a daughter who was watching her mother die of cancer to quotes from articles that said the world was facing a glut of disposal space. Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty felt the need to call activist Trek English on a claim that Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols would not meet with them.

“Nobody wants to trust anybody with anything,” Daugherty said. “You say, ‘You don’t hear us, and you don’t care.’ This is what bogs this thing down.”

Asked directly by Daugherty, Nuckols said he never refused to meet with the community, but he added that he represented the interests of the majority of the commissioners’ court. Meeting with him, Nuckols said, was no sign of a silver bullet.

By the time the commissioners were ready to go into executive session, Biscoe was ready to outline a plan of action, which included a request to study the potential effects of the landfill on public health, which will be on the agenda next week. He also agreed to mediate a meeting between neighbors and BFI. And he was ready to put the agreement back on the agenda in two to three weeks if commissioners showed any level of interest.

During discussion, Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis said he would oppose any contract with BFI. He asked that an ordinance regulating landfills be returned to the agenda. Biscoe, in a non-committal reply, said any commissioner could put an item on the agenda for consideration.

Davis’ prior attempts to get a siting ordinance passed on landfills had failed. As Pct. 2 Commissioner Karen Sonleitner pointed out during a discussion to put the item back on the agenda, county commissioners had learned that saying where landfills could not go obligated the county, under law, to determine where they would go. Commissioners have not been eager to go on an expedition to determine where landfills are appropriate in Travis County.

After the meeting, Biscoe said the county’s prime goal in the exercise with BFI was to determine a time-certain date for the landfill operator to leave the area. The performance-based aspects of the contract guarantee some level of compliance from BFI. State law gives counties little power to enforce good behavior from landfill operators, and the county is not staffed to handle regular complaints about the sites.

What commissioners have feared – and the landfill operators have promised – is that any movement toward a siting ordinance would force both BFI and Waste Management Inc. to immediately file for expansion permits. Both operators could easily have permits filed before any landfill siting ordinance would go into effect, Biscoe said.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Computer recyclers target Apple . . . Representatives of the Texas Campaign for the Environment and the Computer TakeBack Campaign are planning a demonstration today at Apple Computer Stores in Austin and Dallas, at which activists will exhibit photos of Apple equipment at illegal dirty recycling operations in China and deliver postcards and obsolete Apple products to store personnel. The groups are protesting Apple's failure to participate in the Computer TakeBack Campaign, in which manufacturers are asked to provide recycling for their products. Dell and Hewlett Packard have joined the campaign. The protest will be at 12:30pm at the Apple Store in Barton Creek Mall. . . . Meetings . . . The Environmental Board meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall. The Board will hear several staff reports, including a review of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department 2006 budget, and a presentation on the Barton Springs Zone Water Quality Remediation. . . The Downtown Commission meets at 5:30 in room 1101 a City Hall. Board members will get a briefing on the upcoming bond election and the Cesar Chavez conversion project. . . A Smoking in Public Places Ordinance Community Meeting, will be held from 6:30-8pm at the Rosewood-Zaragosa Neighborhood Center Gym, 2800 Webberville Rd. A discussion of the new smoking ordinance that goes into effect on September 1 will be held for bar, restaurant, and business owners and anyone interested in learning more about it. . . T hanks, we'll get back to you. . . Travis County Commissioners chose to accept, but not vote, on the report from the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee yesterday. Roads-specifically Arterial A-are still under discussion. The item will be back on the agenda for next week. . . Legislative action . . . A bill limiting the state's ability to use eminent domain for private economic development has managed to pass the Legislature, even with a minor filibuster attempt by Sen. Mario Gallegos (D-Houston). Gallegos was agitated by the limitations put on governments to use eminent domain. In a statement released on Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Rick Perry said he was pleased to see the Legislature pass a bill on an issue that is clearly a priority to many Texans. . . All that jazz . . . The East End Jazz Jam kicks off Thursday night as a part of the East End Summer Music Series at Kenny Dorham's Backyard, 3 blocks east of I-35 in the center of the historic East 11th Street entertainment district. The outdoor site is partially tree shaded, grassy and works well as a natural amphitheater. A limited number of tables and chairs are available, but families are encouraged to come and spread a blanket on the grass. The music begins at 7pm.

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