The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Under Fire

Memo to Futrell: It's called 'negotiation'

By Michael King, September 23, 2005, News

The negotiations between the city and the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters has now become a war of dueling accountants. Rather than working out the issues and dollars separating the two sides, the city's and the firefighters' negotiating teams are blasting each other over whose numbers are correct.

In the most recent turn of an already protracted engagement, the city told the firefighters that their $31.4 million proposal (over three years) was just too rich, and the city couldn't budge from its $27.4 million "best offer." The firefighters responded, okay, then let's adjust the firehouse staffing rules over the next three years – as the city had previously wanted – to get closer to $27.4 million, and use the savings for salaries. Despite interest expressed by council, City Manager Toby Futrell responded that the staffing proposal, according to her accounting, would in fact cost more money – an estimated $33.8 million. That higher number first appeared, curiously enough, in a Sunday Statesman editorial excoriating the firefighters for being "overreaching" and "greedy." The editors recited the city's negotiating position, unexamined, as though it were gospel truth: "Union negotiators ought to embrace the city's contract proposal, not play high-stakes politics with taxpayer dollars." That is, take it or leave it.

The embrace was not forthcoming. On Tuesday, the firefighters withdrew the staffing proposal, and AAPFF President Mike Martinez said the action was less about the money issues at stake than his increasing conviction that the city's representatives, and Futrell in particular, don't care to negotiate at all. "It doesn't matter what we propose," Martinez told me. "It's a moving target. They don't agree with our math, or they don't like something now that they wanted before, or they simply don't care to compromise. We have tried everything we can think of to keep the process moving, but their position remains unchanged – we can take what they offer, or walk away."

In other words, a process that showed hopeful signs of coming to a resolution three weeks ago – when council members welcomed the firefighters' effort to find savings that could pay for raises within the city's proposed budget – has now stalled completely.

You Say Potato ...

Futrell insists the city is negotiating in good faith but that the AAPFF proposals are simply unrealistic. She says the city entered the negotiations with three goals: 1) to "sync up" the public safety contracts chronologically, so that police and firefighters would be negotiating in the same year; 2) to "meet but not exceed" in contract value the contract for the police officers (proportionate to the size of the departments); and 3) to move from a "guaranteed percentage" increase (as with the police contract) to a "market point" target (competitive with similar cities).

Although the two sides continue to argue over the details, in conceptual terms it appears that Futrell has already met all three of her declared goals. Nobody is disputing the chronological adjustment. The firefighters have already committed in principal to the city's financial target, and the "market point" issue is largely a question of trying to agree on whose version of "the market" is correct. So if the city has effectively gotten what it wanted, why have negotiations ground to a halt?

There's no easy answer. Futrell argues that the firefighters' counterproposals to the city's "best offer" are either financially or administratively unworkable. She says that the firefighters' staffing proposal (developed in informal consultation with the department, and ostensibly an effort to cut expenses by agreeing to redefine "quint" trucks as four- instead of six-person equipment) contains hidden taskforce and overtime costs, and also "backs-up" proposed future raises to this year, making the whole contract even more expensive. "Besides," she asked me, "why would I cut services in the outlying areas in order to give current firefighters more money? I just can't do that." That argument would be more persuasive if the city hadn't itself proposed such a staffing change, over firefighter objections, two years ago. To now accuse the firefighters of "endangering public safety" by responding to the City Council's express request to find budget savings sounds disingenuous at best.

Complicating the financial argument, Futrell says, is that the firefighters have reluctantly relied on the city's "greater resources" to run the numbers on some of these proposals, and yet are now resisting the city's proposal to hire an independent accounting firm to review its market study and the latest contract estimates. Counters Martinez: "We asked them, if we agreed to the city spending the money to hire the outside firm, would they commit to acting on the accountants' review if it showed that our market comparisons and estimates are correct? They said they couldn't commit to that. So why do it at all? And why should we agree to it?"

Minority Herrings

Having officially withdrawn the staffing proposal – a back-step that may prove hard to maintain, now that the city has the bit in its mouth – Martinez says that according to the city's own numbers the two sides should now be only $1 million or so apart. That's not small potatoes, but it's hardly worth blowing up the city's relationship with the firefighters. Yet the city's current posture, encapsulated by its current attempt to shift its side of the table to the Statesman's editorial page, suggests that the city manager is determined to do just that. After first suggesting that the firefighters' staffing proposal was a disguised attempt to "cut services," Futrell then said it would reduce "diversity" in the fire department by effectively resulting in less hiring of minority candidates, or as the city's summary puts it, "Potential 70% reduction in minority hiring."

Whatever the merits of the rest of the city's case, that particular charge is both disingenuous and completely unfair. It doesn't take a genius to understand that any proposal to save money by restraining new hiring – inevitable in attempting virtually any budget cuts, like the city manager's own over the last three years – will proportionately reduce minority hiring as well. So to call the firefighters' staffing proposal an attack on diversity is simply ridiculous. It's also a sword that cuts both ways – by that tortured logic, Futrell's insistence on holding the line at $27.4 million is not really fiscal discipline at all, but a thinly disguised attempt to keep from hiring more minority firefighters. What hypocritical rubbish.

Cooler Heads?

Given that absurd rhetoric – amplified by an unofficial e-mail campaign that borders on hysterical – it's not hard to see why Martinez and the union have just about had enough. "We're being called racists, we're being told we're greedy, that we're insensitive to the community, and as a leader of the union I'm being attacked personally," Martinez said. "This is no longer a negotiation process – it's political posturing. We have hit rock bottom in this community." Martinez says he now believes the city is simply not interested in an agreement, for its own larger but unspoken agenda: "God forbid that we actually have an effective union."

After some nudging, Futrell acknowledged only that the union was likely unaware of the potential financial or diversity implications of its latest proposals (at least, as the city analyzes them). And she insists she wants an agreement, although she's already made it plain that she will not agree to binding arbitration – the next available remedy under collective bargaining – which means, if there's no negotiated agreement, the union would have to decide whether to sue the city to force a financial agreement, a last resort heavily weighted in favor of the city. Says Martinez bluntly, "I think they want to drag the whole process into court."

"God, I hope it doesn't come to that," responded Futrell. "I want an agreement. How does it help me or the city to impose an agreement on a group of employees, to have those employees unhappy and alienated? That's not good for anybody." If that's what she truly believes, why has the city's negotiating posture been so unyielding, effectively reduced to, "Take it or leave it"? When the city responds to apparently sincere union attempts to meet its own declared budget goals not with counterproposals or recommendations but dismissals out of hand, it becomes increasingly hard to believe in the sincerity of Futrell's declarations of a willingness to find a middle ground.

Three weeks ago, after much preliminary steam-blowing, the union and the City Council seemed to be ready to find that common ground. The city manager returned to the table, and now says the two sides are further apart than ever. While Martinez definitely has his own perspective, it's difficult to disagree with his capsule history of the situation. "We have negotiated. The city has not negotiated," he summarized. "We don't see how we can participate in a process that was set up to fail." Maybe it's time for the council to begin asking its negotiators more particular and pointed questions about that process. end story

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