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Union seeks civil service status for city employees

Tuesday, July 31, 2012 by Charles Boisseau

The union representing 15 percent of the city’s workforce wants the city to grant civil service protections to all municipal workers – a proposal that could cost the city tens of millions a year and limit the city’s ability to hire the most qualified employees, according to an analysis by City Manager Marc Ott.


Officials with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1624, disputed Ott’s assessment, setting up an inevitable clash when City Council considers the proposal at its meeting on Thursday.


If Council approves the proposed ordinance, voters would decide on Nov. 6 whether to amend the city charter to provide a civil service system for non-public safety employees who are not already covered by a state civil service statute.


The issue is becoming a hot topic this election year, as voters already are being asked to decide in the November election whether to pass a charter amendment to extend civil service protections to Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel. The city’s other public safety employees police officers and fire fighters are already covered by a civil service system.


In a lengthy memo sent to Council Members on Friday, Ott estimated the first-year transition to the civil service system would cost $591,000 to $741,000 plus “an initial recurring annual cost thereafter between $31.5 million to $82.4 million.”


Ott wrote, “the assumption is that the intent of the proposed charter amendment is to fundamentally change our pay and hiring practices, similar to the state public safety civil service model.”


In a competing memo sent Monday to Council members, AFSMCE Office Manager Todd Kiluk wrote that Ott’s cost estimate “borders on misrepresentation.”


“The assumption that our proposal would mirror the state civil service system is not only erroneous, it is central to the wildly exaggerated costs of our proposal,” Kiluk wrote. “There is nothing in our proposal that would require the City to equalize pay among job categories, bring all employees to the mid-point of their pay range, or implement a step pay system.”


Jack Kirfman, AFSMCE’s political action director, told In Fact Daily that Ott’s memo “throws wild numbers up there.” The union hasn’t estimated the cost of implementing a civil service system, he said.


Kirfman said the ordinance the union proposed that is on Council’s Thursday agenda was designed to be broad enough so union officials could sit down with city staff to work out key elements. “The devil is in the details,” Kirfman said.  


The agenda item was sponsored by Council Member Laura Morrison and co-sponsored by Council Members Mike Martinez and Bill Spelman. None of the Council members returned calls for comment on Monday afternoon.


Civil service, which dates nationally to the 1880s, is a controversial public sector personnel management system with formal rules designed to base government hiring, promotions and discipline “on merit and fitness,” not on favoritism and patronage. Employees’ scores on standardized tests and longevity of service traditionally are key elements of civil service systems.


In his memo, Kiluk said AFSMCE officials in recent weeks received encouragement from Council members and their staff, who listed several benefits of civil service, including helping “level the playing field” between public safety and civilian employees; and recognizing that if civil service is viable in other major Texas cities then “Austin should be no exception.”


Other major Texas cities that offer civil service system for non-public safety employees include Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and El Paso. Fort Worth, where Ott and City Human Resources and Civil Service Director Mark Washington previously worked, does not offer civil service protections to such employees.


“We’re just trying to get some improvement,” Kirfman said. “If it’s not a good idea, why do these other cities have it, and why does EMS want it?”


Specifically, the six-page proposal to amend the city charter would “establish a classified civil service in which all employment and promotions shall be made on the basis of merit and fitness.”


It would also establish a three-member Civil Service Commission that would hear appeals of employees who are discharged, adopt civil service rules and conduct investigations if asked to by City Council or the City Manager.


A personnel director would classify employees and set up a process for examinations that will grade candidates on eligibility lists for vacancies. The personnel director would be required to come up with specific civil service rules for approval by the Civil Service Commission and the City Council. The rules would cover specific things such as: initial appointments, promotions and transfers of employees; disciplinary actions; establishment of probationary periods for new hires; and procedures for reductions in force that give consideration to the affected employees’ length of service and past work performance.


Not all employees would be covered by the system. In addition to public-safety employees, those not covered would include: City Council members and direct staff; department managers and assistant department managers; the city manager and assistant city managers; the city attorney and assistant city attorneys; and those appointed or elected by City Council.


Approximately 15 percent of the city’s employees are members of AFSCME, according to the city’s July 1 Official Statement issued in conjunction with an upcoming bond offer. The city has 10,876 employees broken into three categories: 8,270 regular employees, 1,624 police officers and 982 fire fighters.


Ott contended the City already has a “well-designed and effective personnel system” to “ensure that employment decisions are based on merit and fitness for the position.” The city has relatively low turnover of 7 percent a year and surveys show that employees are generally satisfied with their pay and benefits, he said.


“We’re not sure what the proposal is intended to ‘fix,’” Ott wrote Council members.


Ott also complained that AFSCME has brought the proposal forward only about a month before Council needs to decide on the items that will go on the November ballot. “[C]onsidering the time needed for staff to prepare a thorough analysis of the cost and operational issues, I do not believe there is sufficient time before the call for the November election for Council to study, deliberate, and decide these policy questions in a manner consistent with the magnitude of the issue,” Ott wrote.


Regardless of this, Ott said the proposal also would make “it difficult – if not impossible – to bring new, experienced professionals into the organization. The AFSCME proposal may require the City to equalize pay within all job categories based on longevity. This would mean either drastically raising or lowering pay for some employees, bringing all employees to a midpoint, or implementing a step system similar to Fire and Police. As you can imagine, this presents serious fiscal concerns, and may create morale and equity concerns for employees.”


As an alternative, Ott proposed a flexible charter amendment that would give the Council “a window” through Jan. 1, 2015 to enact the ordinances necessary to establish a civil service system. This would allow Council more time “to engage in a thoughtful and deliberative process with input from all relevant stakeholder groups.”


While proponents say a civil service system creates a professional bureaucracy based on merit, critics contend the civil service system “has devolved into a morass of out-of-date rules and regulations that now actually serve to thwart attempts to attract and keep top job prospects,” according to a 2002 report on civil service reforms from Governing magazine. “Convoluted systems for testing, classifying, compensating, and disciplining employees tie management’s hands. Meanwhile, detailed job descriptions and an emphasis on job seniority make general personnel administration difficult and serve to reward longevity over performance.”


If you have a comment or story suggestion, contact Charles Boisseau at

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