The deadline for completing the unionization of Arlington’s firefighters comes around the end of October.
Watching the process of implementing civil service unfold at City Hall brings into view some things that most may find surprising.
It’s likely that voters anxious to give the city’s most popular employees what they said they wanted had proceeded without much knowledge of what restructuring the management of a part of the public workforce would bring.
That’s not intended to be a criticism of residents exercising their privilege on election day. It’s just improbable that most people would be able to comprehensively understand the provisions of the Texas civil service statutes.
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The massive law has been amended so many times that it is difficult to come to a conclusion of what many of its chapters and sections have actually authorized.
The City Council has spent most of a year receiving briefings from its management team along with outside legal and financial advisers.
As the deadline draws near, attempts to resolve issues between the city and the firefighters association have failed.
Two all-day sessions seeking compromise on the terms that are negotiable under provisions in the law have resulted in a standoff.
Firefighters’ spokesmen have said the city’s position will harm the stability and competitiveness of the department.
The president of the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters accused the city of retaliation and warned that the state union members were watching developments in Arlington closely.
City Manager Trey Yelverton has now reported to the City Council that the lack of conciliation means they will have to decide how to proceed in the absence of support from the department’s employees.
What’s at stake begins with covering the $580,000 needed to pay the annual costs of the civil service system. That money will have to come from the department’s budget to avoid additional taxpayer costs or reductions in other city services.
That number, even if it were to remain constant, would add almost $6 million to the department’s operating costs over the next 10 years.
It’s significant to note that this cost was first estimated by the city during the civil service campaign at just over half that amount. Advocates scoffed at that number, saying it was a scare tactic to discourage voters.
Then there are matters affecting hiring, discipline, promotions, and management of compensation issues ranging from sick leave and vacation pay to other aspects of how those benefits would accrue and be used.
The result of all of this is almost certainly going to lead to the politicization of managing the Fire Department. Promoters of civil service said its purpose was to prevent that.
As already seen from the wrangling that has taken place, including the veiled threat of the state union organization, politics will invade if not replace the current efficiency of city operations.
For example, when all of this goes into place, the hiring of a fire chief and his senior team will have to go before the City Council. The president of the fire association declared during the recent negotiations that the “gorilla” was still “in the room.”
You have to wonder if that animal is, in reality, the fire chief.
Just that alone, aside from the union bargaining processes, will ensure the use of political muscle, likely with the help from those far outside the city, lobbying the elected body.
It’s a new day in Arlington’s experience of managing the workforce delivering vital services to support the daily lives if its residents.
So, good luck producing results that best serve the public interest. That has been and should be the overriding priority in all government, especially here at home.
Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor and served as an appointee of President George W. Bush as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.