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City, firefighters reach tentative deal on three-year contract

Friday, November 7, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Negotiators for the Austin Firefighters Association and the City of Austin have reached a tentative deal on a new three-year contract for the union that includes pay raises similar to what the police and EMS workers received in their contracts. Next, union leaders will take the proposal to the members. If the firefighters approve the deal, it could come back to the City Council for ratification in early December.


“I think it’s great. After months of negotiations, we’ve finally reached an agreement,” said Austin Council Member Mike Martinez, a former president of the firefighters union.


As in the previous two contracts, the city would have the ability to hire and promote outside of the strict civil-service procedure required by state law. “One of the main benefits we receive is more flexibility in hiring,” said Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald, who worked on the contract negotiations. “We’re facing diversity issues. It would give the new Chief a lot more flexibility in hiring process.” That would also include more flexibility for the Chief in appointing Division Chiefs and Assistant Chiefs.


While the proposal includes pay raises similar to what the other public safety unions received in their recent contracts, it also contains one key difference. “In the first year, instead of getting a wage increase they decided to have those dollars put into their pension fund,” said McDonald. “The first year, there would be 2 percent to their pension fund and they would have additional dollars go to their longevity.” The city would also increase its contribution to the pension fund in the third year of the contract. The proposal includes an optional fourth year, which would also include an increase in the pension contribution.


Those pension fund contributions, Martinez said, should make the proposal attractive to the union’s membership. “The firefighters have one of the better pension funds of any public sector employees,” he said. “But right now, the unfunded liability is approximately 130 years. With the current proposal on the table, I think the firefighters need to take heed of the financial stability that it will create for them long-term.”


The proposal also includes an agreement to go to the State Capitol next year and seek legislation that would make that contribution to the pension fund permanent. “Let’s say this contract goes away in four years, we would be mandated by the legislature to maintain this level of funding. That’s huge. It’s unprecedented,” Martinez said. “Typically, when you negotiate pay and benefits, it’s for the term of that contract.”


Firefighters would also receive a 3 percent pay raise in the second and third year of the contract, plus a three percent raise in the fourth year if the city exercises its option to extend the agreement. Should the city elect to give other rank-and-file employees a pay raise of less than 2.5 percent in any of those years, the increase for firefighters would be lowered slightly to 2.75 percent.


Martinez said that locking in pay raises now would be advantageous for the union, considering current economic trends. “If the fire fighters don’t agree to this, I don’t know how long the city will be able to negotiate on this and hold this thing off,” he said. “Because as the economy drops, and sales tax projections are not met, there’s no way we’re going to be able to keep this offer on the table.”


Martinez also said a rumor making the rounds of city government that city employees might not receive a scheduled pay raise in January was simply a rumor. “There’s no one I can find that can substantiate that rumor,” he said. “I’m not concerned about it, and certainly if there were any truth to it there would be a lot of concerns that we are even putting this agreement on the table.”

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