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City union brings out employees to protest proposed pay cuts

Friday, August 7, 2009 by Charles Boisseau

Braving record temperatures of 105 degrees, about 100 city employees gathered outside City Hall Thursday afternoon to protest proposed cuts in next year’s city budget that could eliminate incentive pay for the most senior employees and require furloughs of employees for up to three days without pay.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Mike Martinez, Randi Shade and Laura Morrison all appeared briefly to voice support for the city’s work force at the City Hall rally organized by the American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1624, which represents about 1,500 city employees.


Leffingwell, who noted he was a member of the Airline Pilots Association union for 31 years before he joined City Council and is currently a member of the AFSCME, said despite the “difficult budget … I’m working for you and will do all I can (to minimize cutbacks). I’m making that pledge to you today.”


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez said: “You guys have shouldered a tremendous burden this year and it should not go unrecognized.”


City Council held the first of three public hearings on the proposed budget on Thursday. City Manager Marc Ott proposed a $2.75 billion balanced budget that includes a menu of $45 million in cutbacks, including the well-publicized steps to freeze the pay of city employees and a delay in pay increases police and emergency medical services employees were contracted to receive this coming year.


The proposed budget also includes two less-publicized actions that AFSCME opposes: Eliminating the Service Incentive Pay (SIP) that employees with five or more years of city service receive (potential savings of $2.1 million) and the furlough of city employees for one to three days in the coming year ($1.1 million in savings). 


The most important part of the savings would be in the General Fund. Eliminating incentive pay from the General Fund (an annual bonus given to employees after five years) would save $1.7 million, and the furlough program would save $700,000 from the general fund (and $3.4 million if done citywide).


“We may not be as sexy and police and fire and EMS but we do the work that keeps this city rolling,” union business manager Greg Powell told the employees, eliciting cheers.


Jesse Colunga, president of the union, said instead of furloughs and eliminating seniority pay the city should make other cuts, such as delaying the $1.5 million allocated in the budget for new furniture.


The Council is expected to adopt the final budget in mid-September.


Later, inside the Council chambers, many of the 67 people who signed up to speak about the proposed 2009-2010 budget were employees or union representatives.


Carol Guthrie, assistant manager of AFSCME, brought up Ott’s pay package, which workers had printed on handouts showing that it includes $242,000 in annual salary and perks such as $20,400 in deferred compensation and $17,400 for a car, cell and “executive” allowance. The pay, which could not be immediately confirmed, was not being impacted by cutbacks at a time when about half of the city’s employees make less than $20 an hour, Guthrie said. “When you ask them to take a furlough, you are taking food off their table,” she said. Guthrie then focused her gaze on Ott, who sat next to Leffingwell on the dais. “When you accrue 23 hours of personal leave a month, this is not equality. This is not Fort Worth, Texas. Enough is enough!” Guthrie said, eliciting cheers from employees and supporters. Ott was assistant city manager in Fort Worth before coming to Austin.


The next speaker was Elton Randall, a 13-year street repair employee who said he laid down asphalt in 100-degree heat. He looked at Ott as he said: “that stability pay is not that much. You can find other places to cut pay.”


“Love me like I love you,” he said before striding away from the podium.


The Council plans to hear more public comments on the budget on Aug. 20 and Aug. 27 before adopting the final budget during meetings Sept. 14 to Sept. 16.

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