AUSTIN, Texas — Local firefighters are pushing back against a lawsuit alleging they are spending a significant amount of time engaging in union activities when they should be answering calls.
The suit, filed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Goldwater Institute on behalf of Austin residents Jay Wiley and Mark Pulliam, accuses the City and the Austin Firefighters Association of misappropriating taxpayer funds for the benefit of government labor unions.
In Texas, as well as around the nation, public sector unions have negotiated deals in labor contracts that allow for “release time,” a practice that permits government employees to step away from their roles as public servants and participate in union activities.
These activities may include but are not limited to: union meetings and conferences; wage negotiations; addressing grievances; and political and legislative initiatives relating to pay rates, hours of employment and advocating for better work conditions.
Release time is in violation of the Texas Constitution, the plaintiffs argue, pointing to what is called the “gift clause,” a provision preventing the “unlawful transfer of taxpayer funds to a private entity.”
Referred to as the “Collective Bargaining Agreement,” the deal between the City and AFA offers taxpayers nothing in return, while diverting crucial emergency services away from the public in order to serve the interests of a private labor organization, according to the lawsuit.
The majority of release time fails to serve a public purpose, and in fact, directly opposes taxpayer interests, the plaintiffs argue.
The purpose of the suit is to “limit the exercise of government power to truly public purposes and that prevent unjust enrichment of favored interests to the detriment of the taxpaying public.”
Eliminating release time would create room in the City’s budget for other expenditures, Robert Henneke, general counsel for the TPPF told Breitbart Texas.
“It would at least eliminate the need to hire as many EMS responders as have been requested in the City’s proposed budget for next year,” he said.
The cost of living has soared astronomically in Austin and is expected to grow more costly under the city’s 2016/2017 budget, which includes proposed tax increases that will affect all residents.
“While the police and fire departments are asking for more officers, you have firefighters already on the books with the City that are assigned to the union,” said Henneke. “Before we raise taxes and add more staff, we should take the staff that’s already there and being paid by the City, and have them work for the City.”
Taxpayer-funded release time is diverting firefighters “away from protecting the public and being available to respond to fires and other emergency situations consistent with the duties for which they were hired,” he said.
AFA president Bob Nicks and the City maintain that the practice is legal, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Nicks said the time is also spent building new fire stations, adding that the latest complaint is simply one of many attacks against unions.
“Let me be clear, this lawsuit is a state-wide attack on all public sector employee groups, not just the AFA,” said Nicks in a statement on the association’s website. He argues police, fire and employee associations use release time similarly across the state.
Under the current agreement, the AFA is allowed up to 6,600 hours of annual release time, 1,000 hours of which may be carried over to the next calendar year. More than 2,000 hours of release time is earmarked for the AFA president.
The plaintiffs say release time costs Austin residents million of dollars and is funded through city tax revenue including property tax. The agreement receives almost no oversight from the City, as the AFA is not compulsory to report how the taxpayer time is spent.
“Neither the AFA, its President, nor any of its members are contractually required to provide an accounting to Austin for how they use … release time,” the lawsuit states.
Nicks told Breitbart Texas that he’s open to more transparency in regards to how the practice is accounted for, as long as it “adds value and isn’t so cumbersome that it prevents” the fire association from handling its business.
“Allegations that there’s no transparency aren’t true,” he said. With the exception of his position, firefighters are required to submit request forms to the fire chief’s office that detail how their release time is used. “There is that accountability,” Nicks said.
In 2015, the Goldwater Institute filed a similar lawsuit against the City of Phoenix, this time involving police unions. The courts ruled in the institute’s favor, saying, “government employees cannot be paid their government salary and sent to work for their union.”
The current lawsuit is awaiting a response from the City with a predicted deadline of October 10.
Julie Wilson is a contributor for Breitbart Texas.