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Council OKs firefighters’ contract 7-3

Friday, September 29, 2017 by Jo Clifton

City Council approved a five-year contract with the Austin Firefighters Association Thursday on a vote of 7-3, after a heated exchange between Council Member Ora Houston and Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks.

Houston criticized the firefighters association for not doing more to increase the ranks of minority firefighters, particularly African-American firefighters.

And despite changes that will save the city money compared to the previous contract, Council members Alison Alter and Jimmy Flannigan also continued their months-long criticism of firefighters’ wages and overtime expenditures before joining Houston in voting no. Council Member Ellen Troxclair did not attend the meeting.

City labor relations officer Larry Watts and budget analyst Chris Jistel explained that the Austin Fire Department’s base wages in the current contract are 18.2 percent above wages at the next comparable city. But by slowing down pay raises, the new contract provides that base wages will be at 11.5 percent above the next comparable city at the end of five years.

Interim City Manager Elaine Hart strongly recommended the new contract, explaining that both sides got something of what they wanted but not everything. The firefighters union had already approved the contract, with 75 percent of those voting ratifying the agreement.

“This contract represents a lower annual increase in pay than any contract beginning with Fiscal Year 1999, and that five-year period included three years of zero increases,” Hart said. “There are significant savings to the city from approving this contract over the next five years.”

She noted that the contract also includes a number of provisions to lower overtime costs. In the current contract, if a firefighter takes a vacation day on a day he would otherwise be working, it counts as a productive day when it comes to overtime. That will no longer be the case under the new agreement.

Nicks was upbeat Thursday morning when he talked to the Austin Monitor, explaining that changing the way that vacation and overtime are calculated will save the department about $1.1 million in the upcoming fiscal year.

In addition, the new contract provides incentives to firefighters not to use their vacation and sick leave by providing $500,000 for a buyback program during the first year of the contract, helping to eliminate the need for overtime pay.

The new contract also permits the fire department to train firefighters who have been certified by the state for 14 weeks of training as opposed to the usual 28 weeks, helping the department eliminate vacancies faster. It is those vacancies and the overtime they create that has caused the department to burn through $21 million in overtime pay this year.

Earlier in the day, before there was any hint of the controversy to follow, Nicks told Council his union had been working to increase diversity, showing that the most recent cadet classes were 56 percent Caucasian, as compared to the previous average number of 71 percent. African-American cadets now constitute 12 percent of cadets as compared to 4 percent prior to the new hiring process, he said. Hispanic candidates had increased from an average of 17 percent to the current number of 26 percent, he said.

Nicks also offered informally to assist the department in creating an internship program to bring in more minorities. Council Member Leslie Pool said she was interested in whether they could set up such a program through a memorandum of understanding between the city and the firefighters.

However, after hearing the remarks from Houston, Alter and Flannigan, Nicks said firefighters had been insulted and he would have to take the internship program question back to the membership for a vote.

After the vote, Nicks told the Monitor that Alter, “basically lambasted firefighters and said she was going to vote no, but that she wanted to take me up on my offer. And then Flannigan did the same thing and Ora did it with even more emphasis, basically lambasted us and said we’ve been hurting diversity and we have a bad culture, but ‘I want to take Nicks up on his offer.’

“And then they directed the city manager to do it,” Nicks said, and started to talk about whether that could be done with a memorandum of understanding. Nicks said he does not think that is likely and because of the harsh rhetoric he wants a vote of the membership to proceed on the internship question.

He told Council that their words could impact the membership’s decision. “It’s not going to go over very well with the membership that I’m offering something to you (the city) in good faith and you lambaste us in response. I’m a man of my word,” Nicks said. But, “you treated us like we were terrible people and I’m not sure how the vote’s going to go.”

Houston responded that she appreciated firefighters, had never demeaned them, “and I don’t appreciate the tongue lashing you just gave us because what we were doing was trying to look out for the things that are important to our community. And our community has to deal with a lot of things, and part of it is diversity. If I’m not mistaken, we have 42 black firefighters…”

Nicks interrupted her to say the number was actually 53. She responded, “Oh that’s great,” saying she would continue to fight to help young people who participate in youth firefighter programs such as Pass the Torch Academy.

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