Voters in Leander are being asked to decide whether the Fire Department should adopt civil service rules that would regulate hiring, firing, promotions and discipline.
The upcoming vote, which has caused tension between city leaders and the department, will be a test for a fast-growing city that leans politically conservative and for a formerly all-volunteer group that is grappling with its transformation into a municipal fire department.
Early voting for the May 11 election will run through May 7.
Firefighters say they are pushing for civil service because it protects them if they get hurt on the job and puts a fair hiring, disciplinary and promotion system in place.
Critics have said the rules are cumbersome and will be expensive. If approved, civil service could cost the city as much as $1 million a year, said City Manager Kent Cagle. “My stance is that it is an expensive bureaucratic mess and it does not improve public safety one iota,” he said.
The Leander Professional Firefighters Association said the cost is closer to $300,000 a year.
“The main advantage from the firefighters’ point of view is due process,” said Kirke Phillips, president of the Leander Professional Firefighters Association. “Firefighters have the opportunity to defend themselves to third parties.”
Civil service rules call for a three-person commission that would be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. The commission hears complaints within the department and can rule on disciplinary appeals.
The rules also stipulate that scores on standardized examinations should be used to determine whom the department hires and promotes. Usually, the person with the highest score gets the job and few other criteria can be used in those decisions.
Firefighters have argued that workers’ compensation benefits and sick leave policies would improve under the new rules. Under state minimum rules, firefighters injured in the line of duty get 70 percent of their pay while recovering, Phillips said. Under civil service, injured firefighters get full pay while they recover for up to a year or more.
City administrators have said under civil service rules, the Leander Fire Department would lose 35 volunteer staff members. And it could cost $600,000 a year to replace the volunteers with paid staffers, officials said. The department currently has 31 paid employees.
However, Phillips said the Leander City Council would have the option of keeping the volunteers should the council allow meet-and-confer, a type of collective bargaining, if civil service rules pass.
“We have never said that” volunteers couldn’t stay on, Phillips said. “There is not a single individual paid firefighter in Leander that didn’t start their career as a volunteer firefighter.”
Nearly all of the cities in Williamson County — including Round Rock, Taylor and Cedar Park — have civil service. That doesn’t make it popular with city administrators.
In Round Rock, where the Fire Department has had civil service since 2001, City Manager Steve Norwood said the system is “cumbersome, bureaucratic and costly.”
The Leander firefighters association has formed a political action committee, Leander Firefighters for Responsible Government, and has raised about $10,000 for campaign efforts, Phillips said. It has been supported entirely by donations from firefighters, according to documents filed with the state.
City officials — including Fire Chief Bill Gardner, Mayor Chris Fielder, Cagle and all but one City Council member — have thrown their support behind Leander Taxpayers for Responsible Government, an opposing PAC that has raised about $5,000.
Gardner said the political wrangling over the issue will not affect fire service in Leander.
“I want everyone to understand that the organization and professionalism of career and volunteer staff will be in place, and we will continue to provide the services to the community as they have been, no matter the outcome of the vote,” Gardner said.