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Firefighters not likely to get raise, pension boost after rejecting contract

Tuesday, December 2, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Because they rejected a contract approved by city management and a team from their union, Austin firefighters are not expected to receive either a raise or additions to their pension fund in the near future. The contract, which union members rejected overwhelmingly, included a one percent payment to the pension fund for this year and pay raises in future years. However, with no contract, firefighters will maintain their current pay and be under civil service rules for hiring and promotion, according to officials with both the city and the union.


“We diligently worked in good faith to negotiate and create a contract that was beneficial for both sides. What was proposed represented an outstanding benefits package, particularly under the current economic conditions,” City Manager Marc Ott told In Fact Daily. “The contract would have increased the Fire Chief’s flexibility in hiring, while maintaining strict hiring standards.  The City of Austin’s Fire Department is the highest paid in the State of Texas and one of the highest paid in the country. This contract represented our continued commitment to the benefits provided to our firefighters.” 


Austin Firefighters Association President Stephen Truesdell, who also supported the proposed contract, said the decision by the membership to adhere to strict civil-service regulations would carry a financial cost. “We’re not going to get any pay raise; no increase in longevity; none of the financial package that was negotiated is available to us,” he said. “I think it’s going to be tough to try to continue to negotiate with a comparable pay package given the realities of the economy.”


For union members who voted down the contract, money was not the primary issue. “It centers around ethical and training standards,” said Battalion Chief Bob Nicks, who was just elected as the union’s new Secretary. “With the new Chief coming in…we feel like we can get a good deal.”


Nicks said firefighters were concerned about a clause in the contract allowing the city to deviate from hiring and promotion standards. “Political pressure to get a more diverse workforce works very positively sometimes; however, sometimes it has a negative effect,” he said. Truesdell said he had heard from members who believed the language in the proposed contract was too open-ended. “The last contract had tremendous flexibility in terms of civil service law. It gave them a lot of latitude,” he said. “They didn’t use that latitude. They kept saying ‘we have to have this open-endedness’. They wouldn’t come off of their position.”


Ott denied that the contract provision would have lowered hiring standards or jeopardized firefighters. He noted that the department had managed to increase its diversity levels when faced with a federal court decree, however, the numbers of African-American and female firefighters had not increased significantly since then despite an overall growth in the size of the department. “Over time that diversity has dissipated,” Ott said. “Obviously we want a department to reflect the demographics of the community. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.”


Both Truesdell and Nicks hope the arrival of new Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr will help move the talks along. Nicks told In Fact Daily he would like the union and the city to return to the bargaining table soon. However, resuming talks will not be at the top of the agenda for Ott. “I have been advised by the City’s legal counsel that we have fulfilled our statutory obligation for collective bargaining this fiscal year, and I will recommend to the City Council that we do not engage in negotiations in the near future,” he said. “Additionally, we will continue to give increased attention to the current economic conditions facing our City and our nation.  Our immediate focus is to explore opportunities for additional budgetary cuts to offset any revenue shortfalls, in an effort to avoid any possible reductions of services and actions such as layoffs in the future.”


Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald, who participated in the talks, said it would be difficult to resume discussions as the City Manager’s office is looking for spending cuts in most city departments. “We’re going to have to make some tough choices; so we have to focus on those issues,” he said. “We’re going to focus on the crisis we have right now. It was tough for us anyway to sit down and negotiate pay raises with one part of the work force when we might have to make some severe cuts in other parts.”


Ott warned that while those cutbacks due to the current recession would likely be significant, he would attempt to avoid any layoffs. “I have not talked about lowering the city work force,” he said. “But I think it is the prudent thing to do to be a little ahead of the curve rather than to be suddenly confronted with problems. We’re working on not just a reduction but launching a plan to identify savings…not just one time savings, but savings that would have a reoccurring positive impact on the city’s finances.” He expects to have a better picture of possible reductions at the end of the month.


As firefighters were rejecting the proposed contract last week, they were also selecting new union officers. Battalion Chief Nicks, who lead a public campaign against the contract, was also successful in his bid to become Union Secretary. He said his election should serve as a signal to city management about the level of the membership’s dissatisfaction. “The whole movement is about trying to eliminate asymmetric hiring and promotions,” he said. “We were able to sweep all six positions. Right now there’s a lot of solidarity among the members.” Truesdell’s term will continue for another year.

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