After Audit Of Overtime Use, Austin City Council Approves Fire Department Contract
This post has been updated.
Austin City Council approved a new labor contract Thursday that determines pay, discipline and promotions for Austin firefighters.
The vote was 7-3, with Council Members Houston Ora, Jimmy Flannigan and Alison Alter voting against.
The contract changes overtime practices after council members questioned why the fire department sought an additional $3.5 million in overtime funds.
“We have to ask if there are management choices that affect the cost of overtime and those are the questions that I’ve been asking,” Alter said in August.
The fire department has blamed vacancies in part for rising overtime costs. It has 149 positions open out of an estimated 1,137.
“We need to do [overtime] in a way that keeps professionals in our community safe, but there are fiscal implications,” Alter said.
A report by the city auditor found that between 2014 and 2016, overtime pay increased by 147 percent.
While Bob Nicks, the president of the Austin Firefighters Association, called the contract a routine, "maintenance-level contract,” he said several amendments address concerns raised by City Council.
For example, previous contracts counted vacation time as "productive" time, as if a staff member had worked. Therefore, overtime was triggered more frequently.
“The city had a very strong imperative because of the overtime costs to calculate overtime a little bit differently and closer to what the law allows," Nicks said, "and that will save the city about a million dollars a year."
According to city documents, the new contract will also include a buyback program where staff can sell unused vacation and sick time to the city for a cheaper rate than if the city were to pay that out.
“It tries to incentivize people to use less sick and vacation time and sell it back instead,” Nicks said. “Therefore, you’re filling the seat and not taking off that day.”
Every several years, the city manager and public safety union heads sit down to renegotiate contracts for the city’s police, fire and EMS departments. The current contract between the city and the Austin Firefighters Association was set to expire Sept. 30.