GOING UP;br; City taxes to rise for first time in eight years

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 7, 2000

No one in the audience at Tuesday’s Austin City Council meeting asked for lower taxes – requests were for the opposite.

Thursday, September 07, 2000

No one in the audience at Tuesday’s Austin City Council meeting asked for lower taxes – requests were for the opposite. Therefore, when the council set its levy $200,000 higher than it had for the past eight years, there were no objections.

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Arnold Lang, candidate for the at-large council seat, told council members maybe they should go even higher than the $200,000 increase the finance committee already had recommended. Michaell Bednar wanted them to balance the needs of Austin’s more vulnerable populations vs. the dollars and cents. Finally, about 20 full- and part-time members of the Austin Fire Department turned out to express their concerns on the issue of Fire Department staffing.

The $2.36 million maximum levy set Tuesday is roughly 9 percent higher than it has been in nearly a decade. Part of that excess likely will go for two more police officers, estimated to cost $96,000 including benefits, but that’s the only nearly certain expenditure. Council members have until the Nov. 29 Truth in Taxation hearing to determine exactly how they will allocate the excess, or if they will simply lower the levy instead.

Council member Dick Chaffee’s comment that the council still had "to look at the budget and eliminate some monies being foolishly spent" elicited a strong response from fellow council member Jeanne Poppe.

"I truly believe we’ve been fiscally responsible over the past few years and this year," Poppe said. "I don’t think there are ‘foolish things’ in the budget. Every year our department heads give us the leanest, best budget they can. They do a good job."

The issue of firefighting staffing also may be the most controversial issue related to the budget facing the council.

Because of a recent dismissal, the department is down one full-time firefighter – leaving them with eight shift workers, a fire inspector and Fire Chief Dan Wilson – but the city’s budget shows no plans to hire a replacement. Instead, the money that normally would pay for that position has been allocated to higher hourly wages and pension benefits for the part-time on-call members of the department.

About 20 firefighters came to the meeting, but only one spoke. Local Firefighters No. 598 Union President Jim Mattice spoke to the council, reading a prepared statement to the members he said he feared already had made up their minds. Mattice hearkened back to late 1992, when the Fire Department was changed to a combination department, meaning that it is made up of both full-time career firefighters and part-time on-call firefighters.

"The selling point of this change was cost reduction for Fire Department services … citizens would be safer … firefighters would be safer because more personnel would be able to respond," he said. "However, as the combination system was designed and implemented, it is dependent upon the experience of the full-time staff."

After his presentation, Mattice explained that without the 11th position, it is impossible to maintain the two-person minimum staffing level the firefighters and members of the community fought for in February 1999. With that, any shift is guaranteed a commander and a pump operator in case of a fire. Now there are times the department has worked down to one, even none, because of illness, vacation time and days off. Mattice added that it should not be up to them to give up their time off to adequately staff the department on a long-term basis.

While council members might doubt the motives of the firefighters because it is their jobs and their futures, the lone citizen who stood up to speak on the issue made sure they knew she was there at the request of no firefighter or council member.

Michaell Bednar came for the vulnerable people in Austin. She asked the council to remember Austin’s aging population and its aging buildings.

"I’m here because of the concerns I had in all my years of managing The Cedars of Austin," Bednar said. "I know Austin has a highly vulnerable population and I know the reality of fire: I watched a woman die from fire. Would four firemen on duty have made the difference? I don’t know. But you can have all the equipment and education you want, that won’t change the fact that people are aging."

Bednar asked only that the council set its levy higher for now, to allow more time for examination of the issues.

"You don’t have anything to lose if I can’t convince you to at least maintain the current level (11 full-time) at the department," Bednar said. "I’m just asking for more time. You’ve all researched the dollar side – can we at least research on the vulnerability side?"

Although they didn’t address the council, the part-time firefighters handed out a statement of support for the full-timers position on staffing:

"The safety and welfare of the community is our mission," it said. "We should have the full-time human resources we need to provide the first-rate services the public has come to expect from the fire service."

The issue of the 11th firefighter wasn’t resolved Tuesday, or will it be in the near future. The council fire committee meets at 10 a.m. Sept. 21, and an open hearing on issues of public safety is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 27.