Fewer Fire Fights?

Unions back ballot measures in Austin, Pflugerville


Photo by David Brendan Hall

The Austin Firefighters Association's collective bargaining agreement with the city is due for renegotiation in 2022, and the union hopes those talks will be aided by voters' approval of Proposition A on the May 1 ballot. The charter amendment, which the firefighters gathered signatures to place on the ballot, would allow either the city or the union to request binding arbitration if the parties reach an impasse in negotiations.

Texas state law, which grants police and fire unions access to collective bargaining rights not available to other public-sector labor groups, allows for binding arbitration but by default requires both sides to agree to use it if talks are deadlocked. Since the AFA first won voter approval for collective bargaining in 2004, three of the six rounds of contract talks – in 2008, 2013, and 2014 – ended in a stalemate; each time, says AFA President Bob Nicks, the association requested arbitration and the city refused, and both sides walked away without agreeing to pay raises for firefighters.

AFA President Bob Nicks says binding arbitration would produce outcomes that are “better for everybody: the citizens, the firefighters, and management.”

If Prop A passes, the city charter (which, since Austin is a home-rule city, would take precedence here over the state statute) would be amended to make binding arbitration compulsory upon request by either side. The arbitrators selected by each side would together pick a third member to form the arbitration board, whose decision will be final. This, Nicks argues, creates a more equal playing field for negotiations between labor and city management: "If people have a binding arbitration environment, they're less apt to go to impasse."

Nicks sees Prop A as a boon for not only his members but also the public, as arbitration would provide a way to solve labor contract disputes promptly and less expensively. He says that previous failed contract talks resulted in excessive legal costs for Austin taxpayers to bear, as well as personnel shortages caused by delayed hiring that drove up budget-busting overtime costs. He acknowledges that binding arbitration won't guarantee a ruling in the union's favor. "Negotiation is supposed to look at both sides' interests to each other, respectfully," he says, "and see if we can come up with a new agreement or reality that's better for everybody: the citizens, the firefighters, and management."

A New ESD #17

All city voters will weigh in on Prop A; some nearby voters in northeast Travis County will consider a measure backed by the AFA's colleagues at the Pflugerville Professional Firefighters Association. (Both groups are locals of the International Association of Firefighters.) The item would create a new Emergency Services District #17, overlaying the existing ESD #2 served by the Pflugerville Fire Department. Simi­lar to overlay ESDs around Lake Travis and in Creedmoor/Mustang Ridge, the new district would collect tax revenue to support emergency medical services for ESD #2's 133,000 residents; at current funding levels, the district's financial projections show its reserves drying up by fiscal year 2024. Citing a nearly 50% jump in emergency calls – primarily for EMS and ambulance services – the PFD and PFFA both feel creating ESD #17 is critical to meet the needs of the booming communities on the northern end of the Eastern Crescent.

That argument, however, failed to sway the Pflugerville City Council, which declined to call a city election before it had a chance to consider a review of potential EMS funding options it has commissioned from an outside consultant. This left the rest of ESD #2's residents, in communities such as Wells Branch, in limbo until the Travis County Commissioners Court unanimously approved putting ESD #17 on the May 1 ballot. Should the district be created, Pflugerville could still opt in to contract for services at a later date.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

May 2021 Special Election, Austin Firefighters Association, collective bargaining agreement, Bob Nicks

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