DRIPPING SPRINGS, 4/29/13 – Early voting started today for Hays County residents who pay taxes to the Emergency Services District (ESD) #6, which includes most residents in the Dripping Springs area. The General Election on May 11, will give voters the opportunity to elect up to two at-large DSISD school board members and to determine the outcome of a proposed measure called Proposition 1, which asks voters to approve unionized collective bargaining rights for local paid firefighters.
A local union affiliation is already in place in ESD#6 for paid rank-and-file firefighters: The Dripping Springs chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) of the AFL-CIO, the largest national federation of unions in the country, is Local 4799. The IAFF states its mission is to “improve the salaries and working conditions” of its members. However, local union affiliation in Texas, does not automatically secure collective bargaining rights. Texas is a Right to Work state meaning that tax paying voters must approve collective bargaining rights before those rights are granted by law.
Registered voters eligible to vote on Proposition 1 should see ESD#6 indicated on their voter registration cards. For more information about the election in general, voters can visit the Hays County Clerk’s Election page online to view a Sample Ballot, Early Voting Locations/Times, and Election Day Locations: http://www.co.hays.tx.us/index.php/government/elections-and-voting/may11-general-election/
The questions on Proposition 1 for area voters who pay ESD#6 taxes to support all local firefighting efforts are: What does the right to unionized collective bargaining locally mean to me as a tax payer, and how will it affect me as a property owner? A Town Hall meeting held Thursday evening, April 25, at Dripping Springs City Hall, and hosted by Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Ray Whisenant, attempted to help voters get answers by providing an opportunity for supporters and opponents of Proposition 1 to state their positions.
The public forum was attended by nearly two dozen volunteer and paid firefighters opposed to Proposition 1, who made themselves available to answer questions on how they see the possible impact of unionized collective bargaining on local fire safety and protection, volunteer manpower, local control of policies and procedures, and local taxes.
None attended who identified themselves as local firefighters – paid or volunteer – in support of Proposition 1 to help voters understand why they are asking for the right to unionized collective bargaining. Local 4799 Vice-President Blake Birdwell, who supports Proposition 1, told Around Dripping Springs by phone on Thursday afternoon that firefighters who support Prop 1 would not be attending that evening’s Town Hall meeting because they were not “formally invited.” Local 4799 Secretary/Treasurer Bill Hollis, also a supporter of Prop 1, stated by phone that the forum would not be “professionally moderated” as another reason for not attending.
Commissioner Whisenant opened the Town Hall meeting by explaining that notice of the meeting went out more than a week ago as an open invitation, posted publicly, with one exception. “Last Thursday, I hand-wrote an invitation to Mr. Rayne Kelley (President, Local 4799) and hand delivered it to the Chief (Marcum) to ensure that (Mr. Kelley) would get it,” Commissioner Whisenant explained to the crowd of about 50 residents and firefighters. “That is more of an invitation than any of you got who are here tonight.”
Chief Larry Marcum confirmed by phone that he did hand deliver the invitation and that Mr. Kelley confirmed to him verbally, “Yes, I did get it.” Chief Marcum said that Kelley did not indicate at that time, that he would not attend.
Whisenant also addressed the concern about a formalized process for the forum in his opening remarks by pointing out that his intention was purely informal and informational. “It doesn’t matter from what position – for or against – in this forum,” Whisenant said. “It is not my job to tell you how to vote. It is my job to help to inform you.”
Bill Hopkins (pictured) has been a local volunteer firefighter and resident for 12 years, and has served two terms on the ESD#6 board. He and other opponents of Proposition 1 circulated a position paper online in advance of Commissioner Whisenant’s Town Hall meeting, which then was refuted at length from the Town Hall podium by one retired career firefighter from Austin, who claimed not to be speaking on behalf of the absent local firefighters who support Proposition 1. What was not able to be explained by anyone who did attend and speak at the Town Hall meeting was the reason or reasons supporters believe paid local firefighters are in need of unionized collective bargaining rights. Examples of this need are also missing from the literature that has been distributed or posted online in support of Proposition 1.
ESD#6 board president Bob Love is a volunteer firefighter. The board is made up of five members: Three are local attorneys, another is a STAR Flight trained medical nurse. Love is in his ninth year of service on the board, and his fifth year as president. “I don’t know of anything that is not already in place,” Love said in a telephone interview. “In my memory, we have not heard any grievances or complaints (by local firefighters), either individually or collectively, that have been brought to our attention.”
“The pay scale here in Hays is in the upper 50%,” said Hopkins. “We typically get 25 applicants for every position that opens up here. We offer a 2-to-1 match on retirements. As far as I know, we are the only department in Central Texas that offers this, outside of those with unionized collective bargaining.”
Chief Marcum, who was hired by the ESD#6 board in October, 2010, stated by phone that the ESD board gave paid firefighters an across the board wage increase not long after he became chief. Marcum, who has been a paid firefighter for more than 40 years, including time served both here and in New Mexico, stated that he also did not have a clear understanding of why some of his firefighters put Proposition 1 forward. “We have done a lot locally to improve salaries and working conditions,” Marcum said. “For example, we recently changed the mechanism on how they receive their holiday pay so that it is folded into their regular pay, and adds value for them. And we’re currently improving their working conditions with a state-of-the art addition to the Central Station (on Sportsplex), which should be completed by the end of May, if not sooner.” Marcum is prohibited from local IAFF membership as an administrator and said he has never been an IAFF member prior to promotion to management.
According to another local official, who asked to remain anonymous, even the local firefighters who initiated the proposition can’t articulate the need. “A couple of guys who started this came to talk to me about it and get my support. But they weren’t able to tell me why they needed it.”
That uncertainty about the imperative for unionized collective bargaining rights for local firefighters translated to residents who attended the Town Hall meeting. One voter publicly asked at the forum, “Can anyone tell us how collective bargaining would benefit our community? I can give you a whole list of how it could hurt our community but I haven’t heard anyone say how it could help,” he said.
Another resident at the Town Hall meeting asked if taxpayers would be able to “get rid of bad firefighters” with unionized collective bargaining rights. “Will I have a choice about how my dollars are spent?,” she asked. “I was a member of the CWA (Communications Workers of America) with Verizon in California. I never got to actually do my job. I was too buy filling out paperwork to document and try to get rid of people not doing their job.”
Extensive requirements by unions for employers to adhere to are legendary for required documentation before action can be taken against a union member. Yet documentation to demonstrate the need for unionized collective bargaining appeared to be missing from the Proposition 1 request of voters for action to be taken on behalf of IAFF membership. “I cannot comment one way or the other about Proposition 1,” said Chief Marcum. “But there was not a concerted effort to address whatever is lacking first, before launching a formal election process. So, again, I don’t even know what the issues are and I would like to have had the opportunity to address those directly first.”
When the question was asked at the Town Hall meeting whether unionized collective bargaining would replace local control of firefighting procedures and policies, the lone retired firefighter who appeared to speak in place of active local firefighters who support Proposition 1, responded that local control would remain with the local fire chief. Marcum, whose experience includes dealing with groups of civil and public servants through procedural steps for complaints and negotiation while serving as a city commissioner and mayor pro tem elsewhere, was not so sure about his role here if unionized collective bargaining is passed. “I think it could also add a layer of bureaucracy to the process before anything ever gets to me,” Marcum said.
LOOK WHO’S TALKING
Two volunteer firefighters sat down for an interview with Around Dripping Springs earlier in the week to outline their position for local voters. Two paid firefighters agreed to sit down for a separate interview but cancelled on Thursday afternoon. One indicated that he had spoken to “someone else” and that they “would not be able to answer any further questions at this time.”
The North Hays County Fire Department of ESD#6 is what is called a combination department; that is, a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters. The majority of firefighters in ESD#6 are volunteers who do not participate in the local union, representing more than 60 men and women who currently fight fires and maintain equipment out of the six fire stations across the district at no pay, while also maintaining their full-time jobs and businesses. The number of paid full-time firefighters working out of ESD#6 is 15, plus three chiefs, and “1.5” part-time administrators. Both groups of firefighters have their own organizations and both serve the community in multiple ways, including fundraising for a variety of non-profit efforts. Both operate under the North Hays County Fire and Rescue Department, which is funded and administered by ESD#6: http://hcesd6.xlwebsitehosting.com/
For many of the volunteer guys, though, the dual composition of a combination department might now be contributing to confusion for voters on Proposition 1.“If you hear, ‘Support your local firefighters,’ what do you say? You say, ‘Sign me up!’,” said Bill Hopkins. “We are already well-supported out here. But people hear this referendum on the ballot and say ‘yes’ to supporting (all) our local firefighters. But that’s not what it’s about.”
The proposition to give locally unionized firefighters the right to collective bargaining is not new to Central Texas. The initiative has been undertaken and passed in several surrounding fire departments – the closest being Lake Travis and Oak HIll. Hopkins said these examples – not only locally, but elsewhere across the country – underscore his position as a volunteer firefighter opposed to Proposition 1. “I challenge anyone to give an example of a combination fire department anywhere in the state of Texas that got unionized collective bargaining and did not phase out all the local volunteers, raise taxes, and decrease their local fire protection safety and services within 18-24 months.”
In heavily unionized areas of the country, like the northeast, union firefighters with collective bargaining powers can earn in excess of $150,000 per year and retire on pension payments of more than $300,000 – and many do. One retired New Jersey firefighter, age 48, told Around Dripping Springs that he recently retired with a first pension payment due of over $300K, and was building a large house “down the shore” for his family to enjoy.
The unionized collective bargaining rights issue for local tax payers is, at what cost here? Even locally, there is a lot of money on the table. ESD#6 currently taxes property owners at 7.9 cents per $100 of valuation; the state allows ESD’s to collect up to 10 cents per $100, but ESD#6 president Bob Love says they’re doing just fine at less than 8-cents per $100, meaning savings for tax payers and surplus for the ESD. “Our year-to-year budget is always at zero,” said Love. “We budget exactly what we need, we save our money, and we have some of the best equipped firefighters in the region.” Love said the new addition to ESD#6’s Central Station on Sportsplex Drive is a $1.3M cost that comes from budgeted surplus and savings, to be paid on a 10-year note. The addition will include several improvements and upgrades for the full-time firefighters’ working conditions at the station, like four bedrooms with lockers and upgraded bathroom facilities, and state-of-the-art kitchen and dining facilities.
Firefighting funds from local tax payers have also been supplemented locally through federal awards and grants for training and equipment. In 2009, a SAFER grant (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) was awarded under the Assistance for Firefighters Grant (AFG) program in the amount of $975,420.00. In 2008, the AFG awarded a grant of $126,961 to Northwest Hays County Emergency Services District #5 which, according to the Hays County Government website, is not even online yet but which will presumably expand fire protection and safety for north Hays County.
Another way ESD#6 saves taxpayers money is through the supplemental manpower of its 60+ volunteers – who fight fires and perform other firefighter duties at no cost to tax payers – and who must meet several training and certification requirements, to include federal wildfire certification. The IAFF constitution prohibits its dues paying members from serving as volunteer firefighters, and has been criticized nationally for taking an “anti-volunteer stance.” According to volunteer firefighter Dean Rudolph, who is the current vice-president of the board of directors for the Dripping Springs Volunteer Fire Department, there has been just one example that he is aware of, in Washington state, in which all of the volunteer firefighters were not let go within 24 months of collective bargaining being enacted. “The reason I volunteered here in the first place was to serve the community,” Rudolph said. “This community was built on self-sufficiency. We don’t even need this outside help. And yes, I am concerned that if they get collective bargaining, I’m out in 18-24 months.”
Rudolph’s concern is shared by many local volunteer and paid firemen, including Chief Marcum, whose primary responsibility is to maintain a ready force to fight fires. “I’m worried about our volunteers,” Marcum said. “They are critical to what we do. They’re bright, well-trained, and committed. We can’t do what we do here without them.” Rudolph and Hopkins pointed out that 68 potential responders can show up at any local area event due to the volunteer force, although it is not likely that they all could or would. Of the 15 paid firefighters in ESD#6, only five are on duty at any given time. “With unionized collective bargaining, you will do down to 11 people,” said Hopkins. “They would probably hire nine more firefighters to achieve the union’s national standard of four firefighters per truck, so two trucks with four guys, plus three chiefs, and you’re out of firefighters after that without volunteers,” Rudolph said.
The general union response to concerns about the reduction in volunteer forces points to what is called Mutual Aid, which is already in place locally. Under Mutual Aid agreements, other area fire departments will respond to a local event to supplement forces, as available, and vice-versa. ESD#6 is responsible for 281 square miles – a lot of ground to cover even for a force of 70+ combination firefighters. Hopkins and Rudolph pointed out that it’s not unusual to have more than one event occurring simultaneously in several area districts, especially during wildfire season, so firefighters from surrounding areas will not necessarily be available or able to arrive quickly, especially given the expanse of the ESD#6 area. One recent example of the current strength of the local combination firefighting force, Rudolph said, was a brush fire with a 50’ wall of flames at the corner of W. Fitzhugh and McGregor Roads on Saturday, April 6, of this year. Firefighters got the large brushfire under control before it jumped either road, potentially roaring into a larger wildfire. Rudolph said the local response to that event was nearly 70% volunteer. Marcum also cited his combination force’s response to this event as all the more reason he hopes to ensure volunteer firefighters continue to serve locally, regardless the election outcome. “We had four paid and 16-17 volunteers on scene at that event,” Marcum said. “If only 6-8 paid firefighters had been there, we could not have controlled that fire.”
Rudolph said that his paid peers who support Proposition 1 have not yet talked to local volunteer firefighters as a group. “Only last Friday, did they reach out to have a meeting but they have not followed through,” Rudolph added. A previous approach was made by the firefighters who initiated Prop 1 to talk to the volunteers as a group at the Driftwood station but, according to Rudolph, it was cancelled at the last minute because, they were told, “the national rep couldn’t be there.” Fire chief Marcum and ESD#6 president Love both said they have not been formally approached by the paid proponents of Proposition 1, either before its inception or since it was put on the May 11 ballot.
WHAT’S AT STAKE FOR VOTERS?
“We will guarantee that (Proposition 1) will weaken our ability to respond to area fires, raise our taxes, and give up our local control over our fire department,” Hopkins said. Rudolph and Hopkins identified five key areas they say are at risk for residents if Proposition 1 passes:
1. Current high levels of fire protection and safety for residents and property owners
2. Robust volunteer firefighting force of nearly 60 men and women
3. Local control of ESD#6 policies and procedures
4. Current ESD seats at the table already open to all local firefighters and tax payers
5. Current savings to tax payers through ongoing ESD#6 efficiencies
Hopkins and Rudolph point to the current operations efficiencies (previously cited) that leave 2.1 cents per $100 in taxpayers’ pockets and on the ESD’s table. They said those efficiencies have enabled the ESD to continue to expand to keep up with explosive growth across the area, and to improve gear and conditions for firefighters. “We have budget surplus,” said Rudolph. “Our financial model is the envy of combination departments.”
That envy includes modern facilities and updated facilities and gear to fight both structural fires and wild fires now in use across ESD#6 stations. The central station on Sportsplex Drive – which is currently being remodeled – was owned by the volunteers and literally deeded over to paid firefighters. Other stations are strategically located across the huge ESD#6 area:
- East station: All volunteer, in direct response to development in Belterra, HighPointe, Sawyer Ranch, Polo Club, LedgeStone, Heritage Oaks; located on 290, just west of Sawyer Ranch Road on the east side of the highway
- North station: All volunteer, on E. Fitzhugh just off RR12 North; houses a unique wildland interface engine
Three additional stations are located in Henly and Driftwood. But the number of stations is only as good as the number of firefighters available to man them. Two out of the six stations are manned full-time; the rest rely on volunteer manpower.
“The union can’t replace 60 or more firefighters here,” said Rudolph. “What happens is Mutual Aid appeals to surrounding fire stations to help. How long will it take Oak Hill to get to HighPointe? Or to Henly?”
According to their literature, local firefighters who favor unionized collective bargaining state that they are asking for a “seat at the table” to negotiate “better working conditions including benefits, wages, and safety issues.” The literature states that collective bargaining does not mean taxes will go up, or volunteer firefighters will be let go, or that paid firefighters will go on strike. However, the literature also does not state that these things will not happen in the future. According to their “FACTS about Collective Bargaining” piece, collective bargaining does not “require either party to make concessions or accept a proposal.” Translation – if the union doesn’t like a proposal from the county (funded by tax payers), the union does not have to accept it. Headlines like “FIrefighter union talks bog down” and “Can Austin get its arms around ESDs?” in Lake Travis and Austin, point to what that reality might look like down the road:
So, is a national firefighters union gunning for ESD’s across Texas? In a 2011 story in the Lake Travis View, the president of the Austin Firefighters Association (union), stated that ESD’s are “not sustainable.” In the words of Jason Sawyer, a Lake Travis firefighter and president of the Lake Travis Firefighters Association 4117 (union), “the ESD model as a whole isn’t really working out for a full-time professional fire department.” http://laketravisview.com/2011/08/18/esd-6-mulls-merger-with-austin-fire-department/
While the ESD model may not work out for a unionized fire department with collective bargaining rights, or even elsewhere in Texas, it seems to be working just fine for ESD#6 in north Hays County. As for a seat at the proverbial table, Former ESD#6 board member Bill Hopkins also said that all firefighters, paid or volunteer – and residents, too – already have a seat at the ESD#6 table, and have had one all along. “At any time, we have the ability and the authority to bring up a concern with the board,” said Hopkins. “There is no restriction or limitation on collective or individual bargaining. Anyone can come and complain, comment, raise an issue.” Current ESD#6 president Bob Love, confirmed that the district administration’s open door policy includes time at the top of the agenda each month to hear items from the public not included on the agenda. “Any employee or tax payer can come to an ESD meeting, and has full access to any ESD board member. The meetings are held the second Wednesday of every month at the Central Fire Station on Sportsplex in Dripping Springs.”
As for a formal grievance process, Commissioner Whisenant told Town Hall attendees that ESD#6 already has that, too. “We already have a grievance process in place. My understanding is that (if Proposition 1 passes) there would be a separate set of grievance policies and processes that would be brought in by the union under collective bargaining.” In fact, the IAFF has stated elsewhere that “exclusive bargaining rights” are what is required for its members.
WHAT’S NEXT AFTER UNIONIZED COLLECTIVE BARGAINING?
Perhaps most telling on this issue, in the absence of input from the firefighters who put Proposition 1 on the ballot, is the fact that not all career union firefighters support the initiative, despite disagreement with some of the literature put out by other firefighters against it. An email from a retired career firefighter, who wished to remain anonymous, described his disagreement with some of the positions taken by local firefighters opposed to Proposition 1; specifically, the initial position paper which, he said, “mis-quotes some facts, makes up some scenarios, tells half-truths and outright lies on a couple of points!” But the anonymous email also points out what the writer sees as the real problems for the future of unionized collective bargaining for local firefighters:
I am against Proposition 1 at this time. State law already allows for “Meet and Confer” type negotiations for non-civil service departments. To achieve Texas Government Code Chapter 143 Civil Service status, a municipality has to be at least 10,000 in population. The city, not the school district, so that is not going to happen any time soon!
Having said that, I was a 35-year fire and emergency services professional and a union member for most of my career, but I drifted away when they became so radically adamant that I vote for the most liberal of candidates and began to use the political action committees for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with the emergency services!
As for the numbers quote (in the position paper), I seriously doubt that 60 volunteers could ever be had at one time and they are not all trained to even the state minimum standards. Mutual aid and automatic aid agreements are already in effect and will continue to be no matter the outcome of this referendum.
Volunteer firefighters Dean Rudolph and Bill Hopkins say they know that Proposition 1 is just Round 1 in the fight to bring unionized collective bargaining to Dripping Springs. They are among local firefighters who have now formed their own political action committee, commonly referred to as a PAC. “The fight of our little PAC is against the richest union in the country with billions of dollars in their war chest,” said Hopkins.
Despite the IAFF’s national backing, the battle here in Dripping Springs has become very personal for volunteers like Hopkins and Rudolph, in light of comments like this one about from IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger, in his recent speech to the 2013 IAFF Legislative Conference on March 18, in Washington, D.C.:
“ (Our legislative tools) will demonstrate the difference in compliance between professional, unionized fire departments as opposed to those ‘scab’ departments that use poorly trained, part time, paid-on-call, volunteer hobbyists. We need more of us and less of them.”
To that remark, Bill Hopkins simply says, “When we put the bunker gear on, we’re not paid and we’re not volunteer. We’re all firefighters.”
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ONLINE STORY SOURCES CITED BELOW
A video excerpt of Harold Schaitberger’s comment can be viewed on the North Hays Taxation Awareness Group website:
Schaitberger’s complete remarks can be viewed in context on YouTube; the excerpted comment occurs from 09:40 – 09:55, when Schaitberger speaks about using “legislative tools” for “forcing fire departments to comply with (union) standards”
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