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Firefighters put staffing levels on negotiating table

Friday, September 2, 2005 by

Reducing staff could save $2 million, says Martinez

Austin firefighters revealed a new contract proposal last night — one that has the potential of putting $2 million more into wages for the lowest-paid rank-and-file firefighters without adding the City of Austin’s costs, according to Austin Association of Professional Firefighters President Mike Martinez.

The union is proposing to modify the “Task Force Staffing” resolution adopted by the Council in 2001. At the time, the proposal was drafted to help the city during tough budget times while getting the fire department closer to having four firefighters on each engine or ladder in accordance with national standards. In addition to traditional ladders and fire engines, AFD also uses a hybrid piece of equipment known as a quint, which can perform the functions of both of those other pieces of firefighting equipment. While some firefighters urged the city to put 8 crew members on those quints, a compromise was reached allowing them to be staffed with 6 people.

“What we’ve learned over the past four years of having quints is that they don’t do two functions on a fire scene, nor are they sent to a call as two vehicles,” Martinez told In Fact Daily . “They only operate as a single function. They either operate as an engine or a ladder company. So six-person staffing on a quint is not necessary.” By dropping staffing on those quints to four people, Martinez said, the fire department could achieve a cost savings equivalent to 42 firefighter positions, or slightly more than $2 million dollars per year.

“The reduction in savings that we’re coming up with now is what we’re asking Council to direct toward the gap in contract negotiations,” said Martinez. “We were challenged again to look at ourselves and to realize…there is a bigger picture at stake…to not force decisions to cut other programs, and we did. We took that challenge and we believe we’ve met it…to the tune of $2,088,000 per year.”

That money could be used to boost the salaries for entry-level firefighters, plus help the city pay for raises for firefighters in the next two years of more than five percent per year. It would also enable the department to reduce the average work-week for firefighters by just over one hour through granting firefighters an additional day off every six weeks.

The roughly $6 million in savings over the next three years would not quite be enough to cover all of what the union is seeking. In the third year of the contract, there would be a $154,000 gap between the cost of higher salaries and the savings afforded under the staffing proposal. “It’s about as close as we can get. The firefighters have made numerous concessions and we are down to our two most important items: our pay scale adjustment, and the reduction in the work week.”

The pay scale has been a major sticking point in the collective bargaining talks (see In Fact Daily, August 17, 2005), with union representatives insisting that firefighters deserve higher salaries and the city’s negotiating team facing instructions to hold the line on escalating public safety costs.

While Martinez’s proposal may save the city millions in reduced labor costs, he said it would not mean the loss of any firefighter jobs. “Nobody gets laid off. People do get moved around,” he said. Even with the proposal, he said, the department would still need to hire 36 new firefighters over the next five years to fill positions left vacant through retirement and to staff a new fire station.

The union president said the proposal has the support of the group's Executive Board, but it is not being put forth as part of the collective bargaining talks, in part because city representatives are reluctant to include staffing issues in the discussions because of questions over whether that is allowed by law. Implementing the new staffing would require a policy directive from the Council to the staff. Martinez has approached four members of the Council so far about the proposal: Mayor Will Wynn, and Council Members Lee Leffingwell, Jennifer Kim, and Raul Alvarez.

Their initial response, according to Martinez, has been positive, although he stressed that none of the Council Members had pledged thei r vote at this point. “They have said they would like to discuss it further and they are interested,” he said.

In 2003, the union also proposed cost-saving measures in order to allow the Council to send money back into the general fund (see In Fact Daily, August 8, 2003). Martinez admitted there is a possibility that the Council could adopt the staffing recommendation without putting the cost savings into the union contract, but said he felt the proposal was necessary to get the contract talks moving. “It is a risk and there is no guarantee. But we have been challenged to find savings within our own budget, and we have met that challenge,” he said. “It is a risk, but we stand to gain nothing by continuing to be at a stalemate.”

As part of their latest proposal, the union is also asking the Council to commit to achieving “four-person” staffing throughout AFD by the year 2010. Martinez said the union’s offer also includes variations from state civil-service rules to give the Chief greater flexibility to discipline officers, more options in the recruitment and hiring process, and the ability to hire more Assistant Chiefs.

Cesar Chavez, Riverside changes approved

Town Lake Park plan finally moving forward

After a lengthy debate, Austin City Council has gave thumbs up Thursday for two major downtown projects: turning Cesar Chavez into a two-way thoroughfare between Brazos and San Antonio streets, and approval of the design and construction of Town Lake Park.

Most of the debate at yesterday’s Council meeting centered on a plan to reduce a 0.19-mile section of Riverside Drive from four lanes to two lanes within the confines of the 54-acre park, an argument that has been going on in some form since bonds for the project were approved by voters back in 1988.

A master plan for the park was developed in 1999, and the Council approved a resolution in 2002 to narrow Riverside Drive to accommodate the park plan. Then in August of this year, the Council instructed city staff to develop an updated cost estimate for construction of the park and the impact narrowing Riverside Drive to two lanes would have on traffic. The Council had already issued a July resolution seeking a plan to covert Cesar Chavez to a two-way street.

Council Members Jennifer Kim and Betty Dunkerley opposed turning the short stretch of Riverside into two lanes, but for different reasons. Two often-opposing sectors of the community, the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Austin Neighborhoods Council, also came down on opposite sides of the debate.

Kim was concerned that the city would be losing a useful East-West corridor, and argued that a delay in narrowing Riverside would not impede the planning and development of the park.

“I have been assured that we could go ahead with the design of the park, and postponing changes to Riverside Drive would not hold up that process,” she said. “The project could be re-bid as is, and we could accommodate whatever we later decide with change orders.”

RECA President Jim Knight agreed. “The city is starving for East-West roadways,” he said. “It seems nonsensical to be tearing up the ones we have. We need to try and find a way to get it back in the plan.”

But ANC President Jeff Jack countered that argument, saying essentially, a deal is a deal.

“We spent months of negotiating the two-lane aspect of this plan with all of the stakeholders in the process,” he said. “We are already caught up in a changing bid situation. Every day we delay this is going to cost us more. We need to move ahead.”

Dunkerley’s concern was that once the stretch of Riverside was torn up, it would be extremely expensive to rebuild it at a later date. However, Council Member Brewster McCracken said that a delay now on Riverside could add many more years to the completion of the project.

“Holding off on a decision on Riverside would mean we wait until a year after the Long Center is completed in 2007,” he said. “That would delay the decision for six years. It would also delay work on the hike-and-bike trails, the crosswalks and many other areas. We have to listen to the people we hire. They have told us that this two lane section will not significantly impact the traffic flow.”

He also agreed with ANC’s Jack that a deal had been made. “We shouldn’t be backtracking on a compromise that was made among all these stakeholders,” he said. “We should honor the compromise and move forward with this.”

City staff put the cost of the Town Lake Park plan at $8.4 million, about $2 million more than is currently budgeted for the project.

There was little disagreement on the Council with the staff recommendation on the Cesar Chavez changeover. Public Works Director Sandra Creighton outlined three possible options to accomplish the changeover.

The first was to basically just to re-stripe the road, and that would be that. The second option would provide dual left turn lanes for Brazos and Lavaca streets, widen the lanes between Guadalupe and Lavaca, and add “Urban Design Elements” such as trees, sidewalks and a multi-level plaza connecting to Town Lake Park. The third option would have been to construct an additional lane in the two-way stretch and involved the purchase of additional parkland.

Staff recommended Option Two, and the Council unanimously agreed. Staff estimates that the project will cost $3.9 million and could be completed in about two years.

Saying the projects had been studied enough and it was time to act, Council Member Lee Leffingwell moved to approve both the Cesar Chavez conversion and the Town Lake Park plan with Riverside Drive reduced to two lanes. Dunkerley offered up a substitute motion to approve both projects, but put the Riverside Drive aspect of it on hold.

The substitute motion failed on a 2-5 vote, with only Dunkerley and Kim voting for it. The Council then voted 6-1, with Kim dissenting, to approve the main motion.

Group calls on Council for more social service spending

Austin Interfaith asks for the nominal tax rate

The Austin City Council is in a position to restore some of the cuts to the budget made over the last three years, and the Austin Interfaith Alliance was on hand at last night’s budget hearing to encourage the city to spend some of those funds on social services.

A handful of members – including three with success stories from the Capital IDEA program—spoke at last night’s budget hearing. The Capital IDEA program, sponsored by Austin Interfaith, has trained 400 underemployed Austin residents for more highly skilled jobs.

“We ask you to adopt the nominal tax rate,” Father Joe Tome urged the Council. “We recognize that this will mean a small increase in taxes, which sounds like a pretty bold statement, but it’s a small price to pay for the benefits you will receive.”

Board Member Roberto Martinez suggested an additional $50,000 investment in Capital IDEA. Doing so would cut the program’s waiting list from 98 to only 15. That investment would be leveraged with a matching $25,000 grant from the Meadows Foundation to support the job skills training program, Martinez said.

Austin Interfaith was not the only group on hand. Peter Maxson, who heads the volunteer arm of the Austin History Center Association, spoke on behalf of funding for the Austin History Center, which lost half its staff during the budget crunch. Maxson, who presented a letter to Council, asked that at least two staff positions be restored to the center.

Other recommendations were to add up to 70 additional beds to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless and to support the additional staffing for neighborhood planning and the historic preservation program.

Before the Austin Interfaith speakers, the Council heard from a string of folks, including Mary Guererro McDonald and Carl Tepper of the Building Owners and Managers Association, who urged Council members to hold the line on utility rate increases and taxes.

Last night’s hearing was the third and final one for this year. The Council will vote on the budget, fees and tax rate beginning on September 12. Additional meetings are scheduled for September 13 and 14 if they are needed.

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

Warren a chief again. . . Gary Warren, who retired as chief of the Austin Fire Department early this year, was named chief of the Westlake Fire Department yesterday. Warren will take over from Chief Paul Barker who is planning to retiree after 22 years with the Westlake Fire Department. The board of commissioners for the Westlake Fire Department conducted an extensive national interview process before selecting the new leader. Chief Warren will begin his new position in October. Assistant Chief Mike Elliott will remain in his current role and will be assisting Chief Warren in his transition as the head of the Emergency Service District #9. Warren served in the Austin Fire Department for 31 years. His relationship with the firefighters union deteriorated after he proposed reduced staffing and closing some fire stations . . . Appointments . . . Council Member Raul Alvarez named Tim Mahoney to the Urban Forestry Board and Council Member Danny Thomas appointed Alyassia Taylor to the Human Rights Commission . . . The Council also made two consensus appointments: Carolyn Lowe to the Airport Advisory Commission and Guy Cunningham to the Building and Standards Commission . . . Channel 15 changeover . . . Former Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman joined Louis Meyers and Tim Hamblin for the final moments of the Austin Music Network Wednesday night. The three reminisced about the history of the non-profit venture and discussed the possibility that it could be resurrected in some form. Goodman offered some words of hope to fans of the community-run music channel. "We will still be the live music capital of the world, and the music will never stop," she said. AMN ended its 11-year run with a video montage of some of the network's staffers, a mock headstone, and the words "Long live the memory of AMN." At midnight, Austin Music Partners took over operation of Channel 15 with a promo for "Austin Music and Entertainment", which will officially launch October 1st. That announcement was followed by a video from Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel performing"Miles and Miles of Texas". . . Not giving up. . . Several supporters of the Austin Music Network addressed the Council on Thursday about their ideas for preserving a non-profit music network, possibly through the use of streaming video on the Internet. For most of the afternoon, a banner reading "Resurrect AMN" hung in a tree in the traffic island at the intersection of Guadalupe and Cesar Chavez directly across from City Hall . . . Hurricane Katrina relief . . . Mayor Wynn and Paul Carrozza from Run-Tex have scheduled a Hurricane Relief drive-thru donation site to collect funds for the Red Cross from 7am to 9am. Mayor Wynn and volunteers will be at the south side of the South 1st Street bridge near Riverside Drive. “Austin is a charitable city,” said Wynn. “Our neighbors are suffering through a disaster of mammoth proportions and there are ways for us to help.” Donations to the American Red Cross should be written to “National Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund”. The City of Austin has sent Austin Energy employees as well as members of Police, Fire and EMS departments to join in the relief efforts . . . City to reward green car buyers . . . If you’re considering buying a more fuel-efficient car this weekend, you may be in line for a free $100 parking card from the City of Austin. Austin Energy is offering the cards, which are valid at any of the city’s 3,700 parking meters, to buyers of eligible vehicles at Covert Ford, First Texas Honda, Howdy Honda, Leif Johnson Ford and Maxwell Ford to those who purchase qualifying cars this weekend. The cars must rate an 8, 9 or 10 on the EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide. For more information, visit the City of Austin web site at: . . . TGIF . . . On Monday, all City of Austin administrative offices will be closed in observance of Labor Day. In Fact Daily will also take Monday off and will return on Tuesday.

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