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Council members look for ways to give civilian employees a 3 percent raise

Friday, August 2, 2013 by Michael Kanin

In the wake of Thursday’s budget presentation – where city staff officially recommended a 1.5 percent pay raise for City of Austin civilian employees – at least some City Council members are considering ways to bump that figure up to 3 percent.


Should Council members find budget money for a 3 percent city employee raise for the entire fiscal year, it would double the cost of an across-the-board salary increase from $8.3 million to well over $16 million.


Still, Council Member Mike Martinez told In Fact Daily that he believes the subject is worth exploring. “I think there are ways that you can manage budget implementations to where the cost impact is reduced but to where the overall outcome has the same effect,” Martinez said. “As an example, if we start with a 1.5 percent increase, and let’s say we add a 1 percent increase in August of this fiscal year, it severely reduces the impact on this budget, (and) still accomplishes virtually the same goal: It would be a two-and-a-half percent increase over the year but a much less impact on this year’s budget.”


“I think (the union’s) request is reasonable,” he continued.


In a statement that mirrors arguments made by representatives of the union — the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees – for city workers Martinez called for a decrease in the wage gap between those city employees and their counterparts in public safety. “I think the whole point of negotiating so strongly with Public Safety (unions) is because our civilian employees have been left behind,” Martinez continued.” If we’re actually going to improve on the disparity between civilian employees and public safety, we can’t offer them the same exact flat rate that we are offering public safety.”


Council Member Laura Morrison put on the table the possibility of reducing the 2.0 officers per thousand citizens ratio that the Austin Police Department uses to calculate its force needs. Morrison told In Fact Daily that the three percent raise is “a challenging goal.”


“I think that there are ways that we can work toward that, and try and message it so that it comes out okay,” she continued. “That’s certainly a goal I have…There are a lot of things to be looking at. We’re going to be having the perennial conversation about is 2.0 officers per thousand the right number – especially…to try and look at what it would free up if it’s 1.98.”


Morrison then added a jab that refreshed her criticism of that figure. “When are we going to move toward a more mature and sophisticated approach in terms of identifying from a business perspective what we need as opposed to a number that is pulled out of the air that is not correlated to crime rate.”


Council Member Bill Spelman, another frequent critic of the 2.0 ratio, remained in Europe Thursday. He is due back Tuesday. When he gets here, he’ll return to a city rocked once again by an officer-involved shooting of an African-American man.


City budget staff told Council members Thursday that the Austin Police Department would need 47 more sworn officers to meet the 2.0 ratio for FY2014.


Not everyone was sure that the salary needle could be moved. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole would not take the possibility of a 3 percent raise “completely off the table.” However, she told In Fact Daily that she thinks she and her colleagues “were presented with some incredible challenges with the budget.” Cole added, “awarding three percent raises to employees that will cost $16.6 million will be difficult.”


Mayor Lee Leffingwell called the three percent goal unrealistic. “Frankly, I think it’s going to be very difficult to go above one-and-a-half percent for general employees,” he said.


Leffingwell cited concerns over a tax increase already built in to staff’s FY2014 budget – a situation that leaves very little room for other additions.


Council Member Kathie Tovo said she would have to examine the budget in detail. “I’m certainly going to look at the budget to see if there is any opportunity to increase (civilian salary rates) beyond 1.5 percent,” she told In Fact Daily.


Meanwhile, AFSCME local political action coordinator Jack Kirfman continues to push for the 3 percent raise. He told In Fact Daily Thursday that he feels that the 3 percent raise may “take some creative efforts.”


Still, he noted that he and his team would continue to work toward the 3 percent figure. “It’s going to take going through the two-volume, 1,500 page document to find where the money could be moved around to make this possible so that the workforce can be compensated adequately.”


Sworn Austin Police officers are also set to receive a 1.5 percent raise as part of the city’s FY2014 budget. Negotiations between the Austin-Travis County EMS Employees Union and management are ongoing – a situation that leaves something of a variable in terms of pay raises for that segment of the city’s workforce.


Contract discussions between management and the Austin Firefighters Association broke down last week. Currently, the parties have no plans to return to the table. Should the existing contract be allowed to lapse after September 30, Austin Firefighters would continue to work under Civil Service regulations. They would receive no raise.


In addition to the cost of existing salaries, Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo and his team reported that several city departments would add employees over FY2014. Kirfman told In Fact Daily that, in conversations with the city’s Human Resources department, he’d been told that the 1.5 percent increase would result in a $6.7 increase, roughly $2 million less than the figure presented to Council Thursday. He added that the new figure represents “many more millions to find.”


Council is set to approve the budget in September.

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