LEANDER, Texas (KXAN) - Leander's Professional Firefighters' Association says now is the time to bring in civil service model to the growing Williamson County city. They say it would formalize the hiring and disciplinary process no matter who's running the city. And they're counting on voters approving a possible ballot item in May.
But city bosses say such a move could cost Leander $1 million dollars a year.
The City of Leander is in a unique spot in its history. Much of it is still very much rural. But farmland is giving way to fast-growing subdivisions and commercial strips. And the city is annexing more land every year.
That means more fire, medical and other calls. There were 2,075 last year, according to city records.
There were also more building inspections. City records show in 2002 city fire department inspectors carried out 23 inspections of all types, including fire alarm, licensing, occupancy and walk-throughs of new construction.
In 2010 there were 203 inspections. In 2011 there were 303. In 2012, there were 430.
The 2011 census found nearly 28,000 people call Leander home. It is estimated the current population tops 30,000.
For its firefighters, that growth means the time has come to standardize their hiring and discipline process through a civil service model.
"Historically, when cities reach a certain point, it's time to transition into a civil service-type environment. We felt this was the right time to do it, said Matt Shapiro, Leander Professional Firefighters Association.
Federal Civil Service rules were enacted in 1947 to limit corruption and partisan appointments. Most states have followed suit, like Texas where an exam system is used for things like promotions.
"The one thing that's constant is the career firefighter, the guy, the gal that works here for 20 to 30 years. And what we want to do is have a continuity of standards so they don't change every time someone comes in, Shapiro said.
The latest 'someone' to come in, is Leander's City Manager Kent Cagle. He was hired more than a year ago. He says he's no fan of civil service, which would also give the fire department its own vacation and sick leave rules apart from other city staff.
"It's an expensive bureaucratic mess that does not improve public safety. So it's going to cause the taxpayers to spend more money and get nothing in return," Cagle told KXAN.
"It could cost us in the neighborhood of a million dollars a year," he said.
In that figure, Cagle included the cost of:
- hiring a Civil Service Commissioner and administering the office: $91,000
- paying for increased vacation and sick leave costs: $308,006
- replacing the city's team of about 30 full-time volunteer fire department positions: $609,957
- Total: $1,008,963
But the Firefighters Association disputes the numbers and argues any cost can be covered by the very growth in the tax base that is driving their desire to bring in civil service.
As well, Matt Shapiro says volunteers only augment existing staff and don't need to be replaced with paid positions.
"What we might do is blaze a trail where other departments can actually see a career staff that's civil service and a volunteer organization work together, Shapiro said.
Ten years ago, Leander FD Lieutenant Nick Popovic started his career as a volunteer in nearby Liberty Hill fire department.
Popovic said, "I know exactly what these guys are doing. They come in here as volunteers. They did the same thing I did. They want to come in, they want to be in the career positions."
The Firefighters' Association which has posted an information page online, also says a civil service structure would attract a higher quality of applicant for those positions and keep existing firefighters from leaving for bigger cities. If a petition currently being circulated gets on the ballot, voters will have the final say May 11th.
"If voters approve it we have it. We deal with it. If it gets on the ballot and approved, we'll deal with it," said Cagle.
Cagle confirmed Wednesday there are enough valid signatures on the petition firefighters circulated to put the call on the election ballot. Council is to meet Thursday Feb 28th to call the election. After initial confusion over whether the petition may have inadvertently included Leander Police, Cagle said city attorneys ruled only the fire service would be listed on the motion.
Wednesday, before the attorney ruling, a Leander Law Enforcement Association member said their board planned to meet next week to decide whether to proceed with a similar or connected motion for civil service.
More than 70 Texas cities have adopted civil service rules for their fire departments, police departments or both, including nearby Cedar Park, Georgetown, Round Rock and Austin.
Firefighters Association members say if civil service doesn't pass, the association will retry for the ballot in November.
Late Saturday night into early Sunday morning, a light band of freezing drizzle traversed the I-35 corridor eastward. With sub-freezing temperatures, even the light precipitation created major problems.
A 10-year-old was killed while standing outside a vehicle after the child's family was involved in a fender bender, DPS said.
Austin Police confirm they have located an 82-year-old women who went missing last night.
APD is responding to a 25 vehicle accident near the 5400 block of Ed Bluestein near Thurgood Ave.
A man is dead after being hit by several vehicles in the eastbound lane of Highway 71 Saturday night.
A representative at the Fayette County Sheriff's office said that Fayette County is effectively shut down due to icy conditions.