Budget Battles, Round One:

Where there's fire, there's smoke

The squad vehicle, says fire Chief Gary Warren, has all the functionality of a full-size pumper truck but is much smaller, quicker, and easier to maneuver. But the firefighters aren't buying it -- as one AFD lieutenant told City Council, You can't take a red pickup and put two people on it and call it a fire engine.
The "squad" vehicle, says fire Chief Gary Warren, "has all the functionality of a full-size pumper truck but is much smaller, quicker, and easier to maneuver." But the firefighters aren't buying it -- as one AFD lieutenant told City Council, "You can't take a red pickup and put two people on it and call it a fire engine."

The City Council got no free pass last week as it began in earnest its review and deliberations on City Manager Toby Futrell's proposed fiscal 2004 budget. The first group of departments up to bat -- public safety -- comprises by far the most expensive services in the city General Fund; police, fire, and EMS consume nearly all of the city's sales- and property-tax revenue. (Transfers from the utilities pay for everything else.) Those public-safety costs have ballooned in recent years, partly due to Austin's rapid growth and aggressive late-Nineties annexation program, but also thanks to generous pay packages negotiated with the city's police and firefighter unions (the only two collective-bargaining -- excuses, "meet and confer" -- contracts in city government). Those contracts have cost the city more than $100 million since 1997 -- funds for which no previous City Council had earmarked any increased revenue (i.e., a property-tax hike) or offsetting cuts elsewhere in the General Fund.

Now that money no longer falls from the sky around here, the flaws in this fiscal strategy are evident, and Futrell has offered only a 2% across-the-board "public safety premium" to uniformed personnel and has firmly taken additional pay hikes off the meet-and-confer table. (The rest of the city work force is getting nothing.) But even though overall public-safety spending again increases in the FY 04 budget proposal, all three departments have been asked to create budget savings -- which given the popularity and political power of the public-safety sector, is, of course, playing with fire.

In this case, literally. If anyone objects to the efficiencies being proposed for EMS, they've kept it a secret from City Hall. There's been a little more grumbling about APD's budget strategy -- the Austin Police Association has raised concerns about the adequacy of staffing and the wisdom of going to a single cadet class (previous years have seen as many as four classes), and proposed cuts in the APD civilian work force have left department observers -- for example, Mayor Will Wynn -- wondering if uniformed cops will end up doing noncritical administrative work. But that budget battle is a game of Go Fish compared to the back draft unleashed against the Austin Fire Dept. -- and, pointedly and personally, at fire Chief Gary Warren -- by its firefighters, who descended on the council to argue against the proposed AFD budget as if their lives depended on it.

Which they might. At issue is Warren's proposed "new service delivery model," called the "squad/quint" system. Squads are miniature fire trucks; they have pumps and carry water (about half as much as a regular engine) but are "smaller, quicker, and easier to maneuver," Warren told the council. His proposal is to use squads -- with two-person crews -- to replace the existing full-sized engines, with four-person crews, at stations 4 (on Blanco Street in Clarksville) and 9 (on Speedway in Hyde Park) and add squad units to two currently overwhelmed stations (Downtown's Station 1 and Station 18 on Berkman). Conversely, a quint is a jumbo-sized fire truck, combining the functions of a pumper and a ladder truck. The city already owns two, each assigned a six-person crew; Warren would like to buy two more, but assign all the quints four-person crews and locate them at suburban-fringe stations where the call volumes are so low that the expensive apparatus won't get worn out. The consequent reduction in firefighter staffing and equipment costs will save $1.1 million out of AFD's nearly $80 million budget.

Warren and Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman point out that most AFD calls are for medical first-response rather than structure fires -- which is why the department wants to keep a vehicle at stations 4 and 9, rather than close them entirely. Warren has repeatedly displayed coverage maps on which there's so much central-city overlap that stations 4 and 9 are barely discernible, and he has floated statistics to show that Hyde Parkers can get trucks from three different stations faster than most of the city can get one. "I am aware of how controversial" the squad/quint plan is, Warren told the council, "and I also understand it's not a model the firefighters are accustomed to. But these are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary solutions. I and my staff would not and could not in good conscience bring to you a proposal that would compromise citizen or firefighter safety."

Bullshit, responded the firefighters, in terms only slightly more polite. The union argues that AFD has been understaffed for years, and especially since the boom -- since the mid-1990s, AFD call volume has grown more than 10 times faster than AFD's sworn strength. Only two years ago, the union, the department, and City Council agreed on a resolution for "task-force staffing" -- seen by the firefighters as a compromise on their part and a step toward the industry standard of four people per apparatus. The squad/quint plan would require that resolution to be changed. "You can't take a red pickup and put two people on it and call it a fire engine," noted AFD Lt. Mike Sullivan. "Two people on a fire truck is a bad idea. If you thought of it 10 times, it would be a bad idea all 10 times." Other firefighters laid out in detail how stations 4 and 9, in particular, are not "redundancies" but essential components of fire safety in the dense central city. "The simple model of placing response circles on a map understates the extra requirement of personnel and equipment needed to put out a fire in a high-rise or high-life-hazard area," said AFD Lt. William Brooks -- who added that the experts whose books are required reading for AFD promotion exams specifically recommend against what Warren is proposing.

Ever since the squad/quint idea emerged last fall, the firefighters have tried to suggest alternative ways to trim their budget, they say, but have gotten nowhere. The City Council has generally been lukewarm at best to the squad/quint plan, and may be even more disinclined to back it now that they've seen the depth and breadth of firefighter anger with Warren -- an almost unprecedented display of opposition to city management. Perhaps the best summary came from Old West Austin leader Katie O'Neill, whose neighborhood is served by Station 4: "I really support the idea of the professionals" -- that is, the firefighters -- "and the administrators coming up with an agreement" on how to respond to the budget crisis. "It doesn't look like the firefighters are satisfied with the way they're being asked to do their jobs."

This Week's Battle

The 2pm briefing and 6pm public hearing before the council today (Thursday, Aug. 14) focus on community services -- parks, libraries, health and human services, all of which are taking big cuts. Last week's testimony included pleas from human-service providers that their contracts be held harmless -- Futrell has proposed a 10% across-the-board cut -- because their services are in fact integral to public safety. Expect more of the same. The 6pm hearing package also includes mandated public input to the city utilities' rate schedules -- an opportunity for green-power advocates to make a case for more renewables at Austin Energy (see "Austin@Large," p.16).

And On Deck ...

There's no meeting on Aug. 21; on Aug. 28, the battle du jour will be Futrell's controversial downsizing of the city development review shop. Between now and then, city staff are doing the meeting circuit, front-loaded with business and developer groups. Presentations will be made to the city Environmental Board on Aug. 20, the Zoning and Platting Commission on Aug. 26, and the Planning Commission on Aug. 27; all those meetings start at 6pm. Also on Aug. 27, the Austin Neighborhoods Council (at 7pm) will get its first look at the "faster and friendlier" process.

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  • More of the Story

  • Meet, Confer, and Pay

    Austin firefighters start a blaze of their own in response to the department's controversial budget-cutting proposal.

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