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Austin Fire Chief explains to Council why she can’t expand service

Friday, May 9, 2014 by Heydn Ericson

Ranks of the Austin Fire Department are down by 76 members and that number is growing every month as veterans retire, according to Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr. Kerr says at that rate, the department would have around 100 vacancies by the end of the fiscal year.


The fire department’s predicament stems from its ongoing legal issues with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Austin Firefighters Association over alleged discriminatory hiring practices.


Until the legal case is resolved, the fire department cannot hire to reverse their increasing vacancies.


That also works against City Manager Marc Ott’s mandated reduction in the city’s open vacancy rate for all departments in the next fiscal year.


The department is projecting two academies for next year’s budget. At Thursday’s budget work session, Council Member Bill Spelman clarified, “So the implicit assumption is, once the next fiscal year begins, we’ll be able to start hiring people … and we’re going to be able to go through two academies?”


“We are very hopeful that that will be the case,” Kerr said with a smile.


“I am very hopeful of that, too,” Spelman replied.


In the meantime, the Austin Fire Department is paying overtime to current employees. Kerr said that an additional $600,000 has been added to their proposed 2015 budget for overtime costs, a number she described as “conservative.”


AFD’s projected budget for FY 2015 proposes an overall increase of 2.3 percent  to approximately $162.2 million, making up 19.3 percent  of the city’s proposed $840.6 million general fund.


Council Members Mike Martinez and Spelman both asked about how the potential savings of a smaller staff rate add up when compared with the expenses of relying so heavily on overtime in the department’s budget.


Pointing to a city policy of having four firefighters on each truck, Spelman asked, “Is it more appropriate … to pay overtime so that we do ensure we get four people on each truck, or is it more appropriate for us to back off … and let some of the ladder trucks just have three people on them?”


“It’s more appropriate for us to maintain those four persons on each truck,” Kerr replied, citing the increased efficiencies and effectiveness that comes from having a group of four.


When asked by Council Member Laura Morrison about any critical unmet needs, Kerr described the need for more fire stations and staff for those stations to better deal with the city’s growth.


Kerr added that they already had plans to meet with the City Manager and the Deputy City Manager to plan a strategy for new stations, where they will be located, when they will be built, and how they will come online.


“Did we foresee any new fire stations in our bond package that went forward?” asked Morrison.


Kerr replied that they requested four new stations, though they were only awarded one, which will open in FY2016 in the Onion Creek neighborhood.


Regarding legal costs, Austin Fire Administrative Service Assistant Director Ronnelle Paulsen told the Committee that her department has paid roughly $200,000 in legal fees thus far, all of which went to outside attorneys and consultants. Kerr clarified that additional legal fees were not included in the fire department’s budget forecast for next year.


The city is unsure how exactly its legal dispute will evolve and for how long, though they expect legal costs to be at least the same amount in future years. Additionally, “there are other types of resources that we’re going to need to implement the consent decree (once it is agreed upon)” Paulsen added.


Though Council may hear about a potential agreement between the city and Department of Justice officials that would put the issue at least partially to rest, it appears likely that the city’s firefighters’ union would fight that potential resolution. Union officials have told Justice officials that they will not settle under conditions currently being discussed.


If the union decides to intervene, the resulting legal struggle would not only cost the city money, it would further postpone hiring of more firefighters, which would in turn cost more in overtime dollars.

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