Firefighters won a major battle this week in their push for new employment protections they say are necessary as Leander continues to see explosive growth. Despite unanimously opposing the proposed civil service rules for the fire and police departments, the City Council was forced Thursday to put them on May’s ballot.
City officials have said the rules — which establish hiring, firing and promotion criteria for the departments — would cost the city up to $1 million a year to implement. The measure would require the city to give employees more vacation and sick leave and designate a civil service director. It would also lead to higher legal fees, city officials argue, since the rules would allow police and firefighters to appeal discipline handed down by the chiefs of their departments.
The Leander Professional Firefighters Association, which gathered more than 130 petition signatures to force a vote on the matter, says the cost would really be much less — $300,000 a year. Firefighters argue the protections that civil service brings will be necessary as the city continues to grow. Most cities in Williamson County eligible to adopt the rules — restricted to those with populations of 10,000 or more — have done so, including Cedar Park, Round Rock and Georgetown.
“When a cadet comes out of the academy, the top-flight jobs they look for are civil service jobs,” said Kirke Phillips, leader of the firefighters’ group. “Even though we’re not as big a department as Round Rock or Georgetown, we will be one day, and they know they can come in and get in on the ground floor.”
Phillips said getting the rules on the ballot was a relief after the City Council’s strong resistance.
“Rather than have the door slammed in our face, we went back to talk to the citizens who will actually be voting, and they have been extremely receptive,” he said.
Mayor Chris Fielder said any cost to implement the new rules would be too much.
“Both sides agree there’s an increase of cost and there’s no difference in service,” Fielder said. “Whether it’s $1 or $1 million, there’s an increase of cost, and it doesn’t change the service level. I can’t be in support of anything that will cause us to increase our expenses and decrease our services.”
City Council members balked at the rules at a heated meeting with the association in January, saying this is not the right time for them in Leander.
“My argument is that civil service is not right for the city — especially at this time,” Council Member Michell Cantwell said at the meeting. “I see this as a direct impact on the ability for us to grow as we need to grow. … We would by far be the highest-taxing entity in this region. This is a common-sense, dollar decision.”
Also on the ballot
Leander’s May ballot will include one contested City Council race between Council Member Simon Garcia and challenger Jerry Perez, a longtime resident who lost a bid to unseat Council Member Michell Cantwell last year. Eight city charter amendments are also on the ballot, including one that would create a board selection committee to make recommendations to the City Council for appointments.