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Council delays fire department reclassification plan

Thursday, April 2, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

A proposal to modify the Austin Fire Department’s leadership hierarchy has encountered headwinds at City Hall.

City Council Member Don Zimmerman moved Thursday to prevent a vote on the resolution that proposes tweaking the department’s classification system, including removing several lower-level positions and adding two new division chiefs to Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr’s executive team.

“My opinion has been, and it’s been backed up by some people I’ve talked to, that we could be a little bit management-heavy right now,” Zimmerman told Kerr on Thursday. “And if we take a couple of positions out for this fiscal year to pay for another upper-level management position, it’s just not a good direction to go.”

Zimmerman indicated that he specifically objected to the reclassification of a management-level division chief to head up the department’s Wildfire and Community Outreach divisions.

“I’m still hearing from the rank-and-file that they think that this reorganization is going to take us in exactly the wrong direction,” he said. “They’re calling for less management and more people on the ground to get work done.”

Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks told the Austin Monitor that he agrees with that notion. Nicks called the plan a “poor choice.”

“Our position is that we support the promotions. We don’t support the way they’re being funded,” Nicks said, referring to the cuts in lower-level ranks that open up room in the budget for the new division chief positions. The plan calls for one less battalion chief and six fewer firefighter classifications, while adding five new fire specialists.

Kerr told Council members that the changes would be revenue-neutral in the current fiscal year and cost an extra $42,000 in the next fiscal year.

Early on in Thursday’s discussion, Zimmerman motioned to delay action on the item by referring it the Public Safety Committee that he chairs. Council Member Ellen Troxclair seconded the move.

Kerr then commented that the delay could upend the department’s upcoming promotions, based on time-sensitive lists compiled from the results of written tests.

“Once the test is taken, it takes about two months usually to establish that next list,” Kerr said. She told Council that the next list is set to expire April 14, nearly two full weeks before the next scheduled meeting of the Public Safety Committee on April 27.

Kerr added that ongoing contract negotiations with the firefighters association would not change the necessity of the state-mandated written tests.

“I will still have to hire and promote from those lists, whether we come to a collective bargaining agreement on an alternate process or not,” she said. “So that won’t change how those lists are established until the next process in the following year.”

Council Member Greg Casar offered to keep the resolution before the entire Council but postpone it to another meeting before the April 14 expiration of the promotions list. After extended discussion over which date would be best, Casar suggested April 2. That motion received unanimous approval on the dais.



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