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Firefighters bring battle to Council hearing

Friday, August 19, 2005 by

Thomas, McCracken exchange barbs with Martinez over contract negotiations

Dozens of Austin firefighters turned up at City Hall last night and turned a public hearing on the city’s proposed public service budget into a tense and contentious debate over the progress of contract talks between the city and the firefighters’ union.

Austin Association of Professional Firefighters President Mike Martinez outlined the firefighters’ basic position on pay scale and benefits, and claimed that city negotiators were unwilling to move off their initial offer.

“We have been negotiating in good faith for six months, and we have made several concessions in a bid to get the negotiations moving,” Martinez said. “But the city has not moved one bit from its original proposal. It seems like we (the firefighters) are the only ones who are negotiating.” (See In Fact Daily, August 17, 2005)

That precipitated an exchange between with Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, as Martinez also criticized city management for recently canceling an upcoming class of cadets for the fire department. (See In Fact Daily, August 2, 2005) Officials blamed an EEOC suit, but also cited union grievances filed over the applications process.

“I have made it clear in the past that I support whatever it takes to keep our public safety departments operating properly,” said Thomas. “But it troubles my spirit to hear what I’m hearing tonight when we have had a missed opportunity to increase the diversity of the department because of union grievances.”

Thomas pointed to information provided earlier in the day regarding the ethnic diversity of the Austin Fire Department, which is currently 78 percent white among sworn officers.

“The diversity is so low on this force . . . we need to look at it.” Pointing to large number of firefighters gathered in the Council Chambers, Thomas added, “I only see one African American here from the fire department tonight. It’s a shame that there’s not better representation.”

Martinez shot back: “I completely agree that it’s a shame . . . but it’s not our fault.”

Exact figures have been difficult to obtain, but sources tell In Fact Daily that the percentage of African Americans on the potential class roster was significantly higher than that of the city’s population.

Martinez said the union’s grievances were not designed to scuttle the cadet class, but simply asking the city to follow its contract with the firefighters, and claimed that city negotiators had rejected firefighters’ proposals to put language in the contract that would help diversify the department.

Council Member Brewster McCracken spoke next, echoing a theme he began earlier in the day during a briefing on the public safety budget.

“We are looking at public safety costs that are rising so fast, we may have to begin shutting down libraries as early as next year,” he said. “These costs, if we allow them to rise like this, are going to gut our parks, our libraries, out after-school programs and others.”

McCracken said he hoped that firefighters were able to look at the “big picture” of everything that had to be funded in the city budget, telling Martinez that the current proposal on the table would make Austin’s firefighters the highest paid in the state.

“No, it will not,” Martinez said, claiming the figures McCracken used were a skewed average of the state’s five largest cities, instead of a direct comparison. “Our figures show that in every level, Dallas and San Antonio has higher pay for firefighters.”

But McCracken criticized AAPFF’s figures that included affluent suburban cities such as Plano.

“You can’t compare yourself to a bedroom community with a $300,000 per capita income,” said McCracken. “They don’t have to fund the same kinds of social services and other services that a city like Austin has to.”

Martinez countered: “A fire burns just as hot in Plano as it does in Austin. We just want to be compared to other firefighters who do the same job.”

The exchange between Martinez and McCracken concluded with the Council Member sticking to his position that the city must find a way to slow the growth of spending on public safety or face cutting other departments within the General Fund. “I think this Council has been very clear that we are not about to start closing libraries again next year. We are not going to let the pot holes pop up in the streets next year. We’re not going to shut the doors on kids and kick them out of after-school programs next year—when the proposal we have before you already makes you the highest paid firefighters in the state,” McCracken said.

“I guess I’ll speak to the rest of the Council then,” responded Martinez. That prompted a reminder from McCracken that “you all can speak to me too, because I’m going to vote, also.” Before continuing his remarks, Martinez offered a direct reminder of the union’s political clout. “I understand, I understand,” he said. “And we vote as well.”

Several more firefighters, including other members of the union’s negotiating team, addressed the Council. Many echoed Martinez’ complaints that the city was unwilling to compromise on any of its proposals in the talks. The firefighters in the audience remained standing as each firefighter spoke to the Council. Most wore “Local 975” T-shirts, while one firefighter was dressed in a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Austin Firefighters for Jennifer Kim,” a reminder of the spring City Council campaigns.

But the bluntest reference to the firefighters’ political influence came from firefighter Brian Janek. “Like a lot of firefighters here, we put in our time, we go out and collect petitions, we get signatures, and I’ve been at a lot of union meetings and had several Council members come up here and speak to us at the union meetings and tell us what they think and how much they appreciate what we’ve done for them,” he said. “There’s a particular Council Member here right now that I’m pretty dismayed with. He took our money, he took our time, and then particularly right now has nothing more to say to us. And I have to say that when the time comes up again, he won’t get a minute of my time when it comes for re-election.”

After the hearing, some Council Members tried to strike a conciliatory note with the firefighters. Council Members Jennifer Kim and Raul Alvarez both expressed hope that the differences could be worked out.

Mayor Will Wynn told the firefighters that city would be taking more time to study the contract numbers. “We do seem to be awfully close, and I do commend the negotiating team for the firefighters for their flexibility and the work that’s been brought forward,’ Wynn said. “I personally appreciate some of the flexibility even within your recent proposal as I understand it.”

Wynn said the Council would be working with city negotiators to find a solution. “I think most of us recognize how close we are, and with a week’s worth of work by this Council, we will see how to hopefully get this behind us and move forward,” he said. “I think most of us want to look to our workforce and make sure that we have motivated, well-compensated, well-trained, well-equipped people all across the city infrastructure. Hopefully this week, we get there.”

Council approves Samsung incentives

Boosted by support from the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Austin City Council Thursday voted unanimously to support a $58 million incentive package designed to convince Samsung Semiconductor to select Austin as the site for a new semiconductor plant. The South Korean-based company is considering Austin, along with several other cities, for the new plant, which would employ about 700 people.

“There is little question when you hear the numbers that when you have a $3.5 billion investment . . . that sort of build up over a 20-year period, one of the things that occurs is that the rest of the economy benefits,” said Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Chairman Kirk Watson. Failing to actively pursue the company, Watson said, would leave Austin vulnerable to offers from other cities. “If Samsung does not make the decision to stay here, and for some reason decides to phase out its current facility, that would have a net negative impact on those businesses and retailers that have grown accustomed to having that additional money in our economy.”

The incentive package is structured to meet the city’s economic development guidelines, offering the company rebates on taxes and utility fees if the plant is built. “It’s a big investment up-front, and we’re just offering them some relief over a 20-year period,” said Mayor Will Wynn. “These are credits that are given in arrears. They would pay their property taxes every year, and if they’ve met the standards for the size of dollar investment and the number of jobs created then those taxes are rebated in arrears. It’s all performance-based.”

The city’s cost-benefit analysis shows major economic returns from the investment, including taxes and utility rates paid by the company, salaries for new employees at the facility, and the boost to related companies in the high-tech field. “The math alone speaks for itself,” said. “The city’s general fund has more money in it after doing this transaction than before. Just as importantly, Austin remains on the global map as a technology center.”

The Council is expecting other jurisdictions—including Travis County, the Manor ISD, and the State of Texas to step up and join the city’s recruiting effort. The final incentive package that could top $200 million. It could be several months before company representatives indicate whether that incentive package is sufficient to influence their decision. “This is one step in a many-step process, and right now Samsung hasn’t made a decision to build a new plant here or anywhere else. But it is a step and it is an important step in that process of doing due diligence from the city’s part and also from Samsung’s part,” said Samsung Austin spokesman Bill Cryer. But he also warned that Austin’s offer was just one of many the company was considering in the decision on where, or even if, to build a new plant. “We live in a global economy, and Austin is part of that global economy,” he said. “In a project of this size, you have competition as the Council learned from the world, from China, from other states in the United States, and because of the size of the project they all will offer incentives, some larger than others.”

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

New Council appointments . . . The Council appointed Gary Stegeman to the Planning Commission on the recommendation of Council Member Jennifer Kim. Stegeman is a professional engineer with Earth Tech, the prime contractor for the Austin Clean Water Project . . . Scott Williams gained a seat on the Urban Transportation Commission courtesy of Council Member Lee Leffingwell. Casey Walker is a consensus appointment to the Solid Waste Advisory Commission. Both Williams and Walker ran against Leffingwell in this spring’s election. Council Member Betty Dunkerley recommended appointment of Peggy Simpson to the Electric Board, not to be confused with the Electric Utility Commission. John Dupnik was appointed by consensus to the Environmental Board, where he will serve as a representative of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. . . Changing of the guard . . . Travis County Democratic Party Chair Chris Elliott has announced the resignation of Elizabeth Yevich as Executive Director and the hiring of Patti Edelman to take her place. According to Elliott, Yevich is moving to be close to her family “back East”. . . Listen up, livestock lovers . . . The Council approved amendments to the Health Code yesterday redefining miniature livestock and shortening the distance required between a residence and “one livestock” weighing less than 200 pounds. In addition, it eliminated the distance between the owner’s home and the livestock. Mayor Will Wynn promised to save Nik the goat from eviction from his South Austin home. These changes apparently accomplish that purpose . . . Eminent domain ordinance postponed. . .The Council did not take up an ordinance proposed by C ouncil Member McCracken prohibiting the city from taking private property for economic development. . . . Hospital Board vacancy . . . The city is seeking applications for an impending vacancy on the T ravis County Hospital District Board of Managers. Victoria Hsu has resigned from the nine-person board effective August. 31. The deadline for applications is 5pm on September 2. Applications are available at www.cityofaustin.org/cityclerk or in person at the City Clerk’s office at City Hall. . . . Williamson County landfill. . The battle over "Hutto Hill" continues August 25 as state officials host a public hearing on the proposed expansion of the Williamson County Landfill. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will host the public hearing on the expansion of the landfill, located just off FM 1660 north of Hutto, at 7 p.m. at Hutto Primary School, 955 W. Front St. In July, 2003, landfill operator Waste Management Inc. filed an application with TCEQ to expand the facility from 202 acres to 575 acres, and increase the maximum elevation 74 feet. Residents opposed to the expansion have formed the Mount Hutto Aware Citizens Committee. They are concerned the expansion will lead to more pollution, increased industrial traffic and commerce, and environmental problems . . . Walgreen’s contract OK’d . . . The Council on Thursday approved a change to the city’s contract with Walgreen’s, which fills prescriptions for patients at city-run health clinics. The new language requires the company’s stores in Austin to fill

prescriptions for patients even if an individual pharmacist objects. “Pharmacist refusal incidents have been reported in nearly every state across the country,” said Danielle Tierney with Planned Parenthood. Under the new provision in the contract, if a pharmacist objects to filling a prescription for birth control or emergency contraception, the store will be required to find another pharmacist to dispense the medication instead of sending the customer to another store.

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