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Spelman says equity requires him to vote against firefighters contract

Tuesday, December 15, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Council Member Bill Spelman said Monday that he would vote against the firefighters contract when it comes up for a Council vote on Thursday. It’s an equity issue, he said, since other city employees—trash collectors and street repair crews, for example—are being paid below what they get in other Texas cities.


Austin firefighters are the best paid firefighters in Texas and as far as I can tell, just about the best paid firefighters in the United States of America. So, on that equity issue, those who are being paid below market…ought to have first claim on our very, very scarce resources right now,” Spelman said.


The total cost of increased wages and benefits for firefighters in the four-year contract set for City Council approval on Thursday is more than $25 million. Spelman said 68 percent of that would go toward increased wages and 31 percent to higher pension payments. The remainder will be spent on Medicare and on reclassifying some departmental positions.


Firefighters overwhelmingly voted to approve the contract, which was arrived at through collective bargaining, last week. If approved by Council, the contract would raise the city’s yearly contribution to each firefighter’s pension from the current 18.05 percent to 19.05 percent next year. In 2011-12, the contribution would increase to 20.5 percent and in 2012-13; the amount would rise to 22.05 percent.


Most city employees receive a 12 percent yearly contribution to their pension funds. They also receive 6.2 percent for Social Security, which firefighters do not receive, according to Chief Financial Officer Leslie Browder.


But Bob Nicks, president-elect of the Austin Firefighters Association, believes that the union and the city have struck a deal that is fair to all. He points out that the city does not pay into the Social Security system on behalf of firefighters, although police, EMS and all full-time other city employees receive that benefit.


Under the contract, firefighters would also receive a three percent raise in each of the next three fiscal years unless city employees receive more, in which case firefighters’ raises would go up to match that percentage. Police and EMS contracts call for the same raises.


Spelman and others agree that the benefit of the contract to the city is the leeway it gives management to increase diversity in the mostly white Fire Department. Although he applauds the effort, he said, it’s extremely slow and costly.


“We’re talking about an increase of about 10 new black and Hispanic firefighters for the next three years. That’s 30 in total, so at the end of the three-year period we’ve spent $24 million and we have 30 more black and Hispanic firefighters that we didn’t have before,” said Spelman. “We will have spent a whole lot of money in order to make not very much headway,” he said.


“Some of my colleagues were suggesting that we could set this for a review at the public safety commission,” he said, but added that he is not even sure he could get a second for such a motion.


“We have librarians and people who pick up trash, people who fix potholes, keep the water on, people who keep the power on, and as best I can tell, most of them are paid below market, which is below what other jurisdictions in Central Texas are paying.” People who fix potholes and pick up trash make about $30,000 each. They have not had a raise in two years and are paid below what they could get at a private employer, Spelman said. “We need to give them a five percent pay raise just to get them up to the average. Our firefighters are way above average.”


Bu Nicks said the firefighters are getting the same as other public safety employees who negotiated their contracts in 2008. “We got an extra point to the pension that police didn’t get,” he said, noting that union negotiators “were very firm because our pension is down.” He said it makes more sense to look at the picture beginning in 2008. Firefighters lost out on a pension increase at that point when they rejected their contract.


According to the contract ratified last week, the city can use of a third party vendor for recruiting.  The promotional process expands the authority of the Fire Chief to use an Assessment Center process for promotion to Battalion Chief and Captain. It also retains the authority of the Fire Chief to appoint for Assistant Chief and Division Chief with specified qualifying criteria.

The four-year agreement contains an increase in longevity pay increases from $48 to $80 per year for each year of service up to 25 years. The new contract, if approved by Council, will cost the city nothing in the first year, $4.5 million in year two, $8.4 million the third year, and $12.6 million in the final year. 

Nicks praised city management for working with the union to reach a fair agreement this time around.


Asked whether he was concerned about paying public safety salaries and benefits next year, Mayor Lee Leffingwell, a strong union supporter, said “We’ll know more about that this (coming) year.” He pointed out that both the police and EMS unions gave up scheduled raises this year. As for next year, he said,

“I hope we don’t have to address that.”


Council Member Sheryl Cole, who is both an attorney and a certified public accountant, said she expects to vote for the contract. Asked what might happen if the city were unable to meet the financial demands of the contracts, Cole said the public safety contracts could be modified or terminated in case of “major catastrophic events. I don’t believe we have ever exercised that option.” She said the city would have to consider its reserves and other funding needs should that occur.

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