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Firefighters, city reach tentative accord

Thursday, October 6, 2005 by

After eight months of talks, negotiators for the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters and the City of Austin reached a tentative agreement on Wednesday on a new three-year contract. The proposal will give significant raises to firefighters at the lower end of the department’s pay scale while allowing the City additional latitude in the hiring process in order to increase diversity within AFD.

“We’re glad to be at this point,” said AAPFF President Mike Martinez. “There were times where it was touch-and-go, and we weren’t sure that we were going to be able to mutually agree, but we’re here.”

The proposed contract provides for a new pay scale for Austin firefighters based upon their job title and level of seniority. Those in the lower ranks would see the largest percentage raise under the new pay scale. Higher-ranking firefighters with titles such as Specialist or Lieutenant would also receive raises, but the higher up the chain of command the smaller the percentage increase in the proposed contract. There would also be an across-the-board raise for all firefighters in the next two years. The union’s previous proposal to change the level of staffing on quints was not included, since it was taken off the table during discussions last month.

Now that the proposed contract has been approved by the negotiators, it will be up to the union members to decide if they find it acceptable. If approved by a majority of the AAPFF membership, it will go to the full City Council for a vote.

Council Member Brewster McCracken said he had been informed about the tentative agreement Wednesday. He said the pay raises firefighters are to receive in the third year of the contract would not take place in October of 2007, but would be later, thus saving the city money. City employees generally receive pay raises on October 1. He added that the union’s leadership had indicated that the members would vote on the contract in November—at the same time that new officers are selected.

As a result of the agreement, McCracken said, the city would be able to use a more flexible hiring process, allowing for more diversity amongst new firefighters. However, the city will not be able to reinstate the process that had been effect this summer—one which might have resulted a greatly increased number of minority firefighters. Austin abandoned that process after the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission informed the city that the physical test being used could have a discriminatory impact on women.

Anti-toll group sues CAMPO, Governor

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry calls a case filed by People for Efficient Transportation (PET) against the governor, the Texas Department of Transportation and two metropolitan planning organizations yesterday “a frivolous lawsuit that amounts to nothing more than a publicity stunt.”

Attorney Steven Smith filed the lawsuit in Travis County District Court yesterday on behalf of PET, alleging that MPOs are unlawful creations of the state with no state-provided authority to spend federal dollars and representation that violates the separation of executive and legislative powers. Smith’s group, the Texas Legal Foundation, has also sued Williamson County for using taxpayer money to lobby the Legislature through its dues to an organization of counties. Smith is a former Texas Supreme Court justice.

Sal Costello, founder of PET, says state law does not give Perry the authority to create special districts such as the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization or the San Antonio Area Planning Organization, nor does it give him authority to either toll roads or complete the Trans-Texas Corridor.

"Rick Perry's Double Tax tolling scheme takes existing public highway projects that are fully funded with gas tax dollars, some on the verge of completion, and turns them into toll roads at the last minute,” Costello said in a press release yesterday. “It’s a double tax. It’s morally and ethically wrong. The Governor is being deceptive when he tells the public that he won’t toll existing highways. This deception allows billions of dollars worth of taxpayer-funded roads, and right of way in Texas, to be shifted to toll roads, to hold Texas families hostage to pay a toll to drive to work, school or shop. On top of that, he’s doing it all without following Texas law.”

Spokeswoman Kathy Walt in Perry’s office swatted away Costello’s claims.

“This is a frivolous lawsuit that amounts to nothing more than a publicity stunt,” Walt said. “Gov. Perry does not support tolling existing highways or roadways and signed a law prohibiting the conversion of non-tolled highways to tollways without voter approval. Texas voters overwhelmingly approved toll roads in a 2001 Constitutional amendment election.”

Michael Aulick, executive director of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, had a copy of Smith’s lawsuit in hand yesterday and appeared a bit perplexed by the claims that the Austin MPO was unconstitutional under Texas law with an unlawful mix of citizen and legislative representation on its board of directors.

”Metropolitan planning organizations were created under the mandate of federal law, not state law, and they are a condition of federal highway funding,” Aulick said. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a challenge to the existence of CAMPO or the composition of its board, and we’ve been around for over 30 years now.”

Costello has suggested it is illegal to have elected officials serving on the regional transportation board, quoting Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin), who has called serving on such a board “an inherent conflict of interest.” The boards should be dismantled and replaced with an at-large elected board serving two-year terms, Costello said.

“The Constitution clearly states there must be a separation of powers between legislative and executive branches, but the MPOs have state legislators – representatives and Senators – serving on these administrative boards,” Costello said. “These folks are elected. They shouldn’t have legislative officials on an administrative board . . . Keel has pointed this out before in public meetings – I heard him talk about it – but nobody’s put up a challenge before.”

The composition of MPO boards is different in different regions, approved at the governor’s discretion. The Federal Transportation Administration, however, audits the state’s MPOs every three years, Aulick said. If the federal government had any question about the legality of the composition of the board, it would have the right to decertify CAMPO and instruct the state to appoint a more appropriate board, Aulick said.

Costello said he was excited and confident about the lawsuit. Smith is seeking a declaratory judgment in the case.

“Basically, what the lawsuit is saying is, ‘Governor Perry, you are the chief planning officer of the state, it is your plan that you want to toll our public highways. We don’t think it’s fair,’” Costello said. “We want to point our finger at the Governor and say, ‘You don’t even have the authority to do this.’”

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

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