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Council solves two problems with addition of new AFD battalion chief

Tuesday, February 1, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

The City of Austin gained a new Fire Department battalion chief last week, and in the process, managed to lose a knotty personnel problem.


City Council members resolved a longstanding dispute involving the Austin Fire Department and one of its officers by approving the department’s request to increase the number of fire battalion chiefs in the city by one. The move made it possible for Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr to promote Captain Gary Groomer to that position without having to demote the battalion chief who got that job after Kerr initially denied Groomer’s promotion.


Kerr denied Groomer’s promotion to battalion chief last March, citing the “discredit” he brought to the department after getting arrested for shoplifting in 2005. In August, Groomer and the Austin Firefighters Association filed an appeal with the department, and in November, arbitration hearing examiner Chuck Miller sustained that appeal, saying Kerr was unjustified in bypassing Groomer for the position. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 30, 2010)


Miller’s decision left the city with 34 battalion chiefs but only 33 battalion chief positions. Those familiar with the AFD promotion process initially thought the department would make room for Groomer by demoting the last battalion chief to be promoted and place him back at the top of the department’s indefinite reinstatement list.


Instead, Kerr asked Council to increase the number of battalion chiefs by one and decrease the number of firefighter positions by one. That firefighter position has been vacant since Groomer’s appeal was granted.


According to city staff, Groomer will be assigned to manage the APD “clothing store,” which will supply equipment and uniforms to 1,100 firefighters now that the city’s Materials Management program is being phased out and APD is in the process of taking over that responsibility.


“Gary Groomer is very well-suited to this project,” Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks told In Fact Daily. “He’s very detail oriented and very good at that sort of thing. The fact that they made another battalion chief is probably necessary to handle workload to make the transition, and I think he’ll do a good job.”


Nicks, who was skeptical of Kerr’s decision to deny Groomer’s position, claiming her actions might have been motivated by political considerations, said that he supported the department’s proposal as the most judicious way to solve two tough problems without losing face.


“I think that they saw a need and they knew they had a problem with Groomer having to be promoted,” he said. “And so I think they probably did a wise thing. They met that need with promoting Groomer to handle this new project. I think this was an opportunity for them to solve two problems at one time.”


APD estimates that reclassifying the firefighter position to a battalion chief position will cost $37,000 in fiscal year 2011 and an annualized cost in FY2012 of $56,000. According to city staff, vacancy savings in the department’s operations program will be sufficient to address those costs.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell addressed possible public skepticism that the department’s request for an additional battalion chief was simply a matter of cleaning up a mess and not a real necessity.


“Is this extra battalion chief position superfluous or is it something needed for other reasons … just to overcome this obstacle that has come up, this situation that has arisen?” Leffingwell asked Kerr


“It is a needed position,” Kerr responded. “The organization has been growing tremendously. … It’s something that would need to be done anyway. We’ll probably be coming back to you for additional positions as these projects and programs start to evolve and need more oversight.”


Council voted 6-0 in favor of the reclassification, with Council Member Sheryl Cole off the dais.

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