San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

April 13th, 2010
City firefighters request comp time, council agrees


San Marcos Fire Department Chief Les Stephens is close to securing compensatory time for city firefighters. Photo by Sean Batura.

News Reporter

San Marcos firefighters are a step closer to receiving compensatory time after a 5-1 vote in its favor by the city council last week.

San Marcos Fire Department (SMFD) Chief Les Stephens told city councilmembers that his department needs comp time because the his department does not have enough overtime pay to compensate rank and file employees, who would otherwise need to conduct specialized maintenance on their off-hours. Stephens also said the measure is needed because command staff, such as captains and battalion chiefs, can only assemble for meetings on their off-hours.

Stephens said the addition of comp time, which he and Mayor Susan Narvaiz emphasized is a “management tool,” will not involve any additional cost to the city.

Councilmembers approved the comp time ordinance on first reading last week, so it may be back on the agenda in two weeks for final approval — that is, if firefighters come up with a comp time policy that satisfies most councilmembers. Councilmember John Thomaides, who asked the most questions last week and cast the dissenting vote, expressed concern that Stephens had not presented such a policy.

“I understand the reasoning for it, to get rid of overtime,” Thomaides said. “My concern is that we have enough compensatory time that you all are going to come back and ask for new positions, which is not revenue neutral, which is going to cost more. Where does it end?”

Stephens replied that he does not intend to eliminate overtime pay, and called comp time “a stop-gap measure” to assuage a shortage of SMFD employees.

“We still need additional people, and I’ve already asked for those positions this upcoming budget,” Stephens said.

Councilmembers voted 5-2 for a collectively-bargained employment agreement for firefighters late last year. Thomaides and Councilmember Gaylord Bose cast the only votes against the agreement, which will increase salaries for 52 firefighters an average of $20,000 per year after three years. The contract includes incentives for longevity, education, bilingual aptitude and other categories. Also included are provisions saying meet and confer negotiations may be re-opened for 60 days if the city determines that it can’t meet its funding obligations.

In January, councilmembers unanimously approved $58,579.97 to furnish offices for the SMFD chief, assistant chief, training chief, and department secretary’s offices at the department’s newest location, Station 5  at 100 Carlson Circle. The expenditure also included furniture for the conference room, training room, kitchen, and miscellaneous seating areas.

The council initially allocated $100,000 for fixtures, furniture, and equipment (FF&E) for the $5 million station. Stephens told councilmembers in January that he predicted exceeding the budgeted $100,000 when all the furnishings have been purchased, and that SMFD will have to dip into contingency funds. At a city council meeting in January, Stephens said he did not plan to purchase the items totaling $58,579.97 at businesses in San Marcos.

Thomaides asked Stephens if SMFD could farm out some of the maintenance it currently does in-house, or have other non-fire department city staff do the work.

“(City staff is) doing the maintenance on our vehicles,” Stephens said. “The things I’m referring to are our small engines, a lot of things we work with every day — the chainsaws, the power equipment, the hydraulic pumps for our rescue tools. Those kinds of things that have small engines have to have routine maintenance performed on them. They have to have oil changes and tune-ups and minor repairs, and those are things, that it’s best, I think, to do in-house. It’s a more cost-effective … We could send it out if we had the funds in a line item to contract those services, absolutely. The same with our SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) maintenance — we could contract that out as well. The money’s not there currently to contract out those services and we’re trying to find ways to do it in-house.”

Narvaiz suggested that SMFD present a list of activities to the council that necessitate comp time at the next reading of the ordinance. Stephens said his department intends to limit the amount of comp time hours any one employee could accrue.

“My concern is that this is a deferred budget expense,” Thomaides said. “You give all this — the employees garner all this time, it’s more time off, it’s time on top of their already-guaranteed vacation time, and now I hear people coming in and saying, ‘You know what, we don’t have enough people to cover everything’ — and that’s where our budget issue kicks in. If you could tell me, or assure the council, or assure me, that you have a policy that will not put us in that situation, I’m fine with it. But I haven’t seen your policy. All I’ve seen is an ask. And I think it’s very vague.”

Stephens replied that he could have a policy back for the council’s consideration.

Councilmember Chris Jones made a motion to table the ordinance and suggested it be put on a future agenda after SMFD officials insure a cap on the amount of comp time their employees could accrue, and after the city’s human resources department conducts more research by to verify the ordinance’s compliance with civil service law.

“I would be okay moving forward with this if we had some kind of a cap on it, just so that, from a fiscal perspective, we know what to prepare for in passing this policy,” Jones said.

Thomaides said he would support tabling the ordinance if SMFD heads came back to council with a written policy detailing exactly the activities for which employees would be eligible for comp time. Narvaiz interrupted Jones and Thomaides’ attempt to table the ordinance and suggested councilmembers vote on the ordinance on first reading and refrain from voting on the matter again until SMFD supervisors offer a written policy for comp time.

When City Clerk Sherry Mashburn indicated there was a motion on the floor to table the ordinance, Narvaiz said Thomaides did not specifically second Jones’ motion, but used the words “would” and “if” in voicing support for the tabling option. Jones withdrew his motion and the council voted on the ordinance with the addendum that SMFD heads develop a comp time policy including eligible activities, a cap, and further study by human resources to verify the ordinance’s compliance with civil service law.

Last week, councilmembers unanimously approved expenditures totaling $63,511.76 for the purchase of equipment and related professional services to connect Fire Station 5 to the city’s fiber optic network ring. Of the $63,511.76, $5,670 will go to Insight Networking for related planning, installation and project management services.

Before finalizing this year’s budget, councilmembers last year agreed to keep the downtown fire station (Station 1) open after the new central fire station (Station 5) is complete. Before that decision, the council intended to remove the fiber optic ring equipment from Station 1 and install it at Station 5.

After deciding to keep the downtown fire station open, councilmembers agreed to include a new fiber optic ring in a the Fiscal Year 2010 bond issuance. City staff mistakenly left the new equipment off the approved list of 2010 capital improvement program (CIP) projects. City Manager Rick Menchaca said the fiber optic project “came in $15,000 under budget.” Staff recommended, and councilmembers agreed, to take the funds for the new equipment from accrued CIP interest earnings.

“This is the cheapest way…in order to keep the existing Station 1,” Stephens said. “If we rob that (station of the fibre optic equipment), then we wouldn’t have telephones and computers in station 1.”

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