Fort Worth workers push for raises amid budget crunch

FORT WORTH -- Upset with the City Council balancing the budget at their expense, the city's rank-and-file employees are seeking a 3 percent pay raise as well as an end to furloughs, layoffs and benefit reductions.

Speaking as the Coalition of General Employees -- or those who don't work for the Police and Fire departments -- about 150 people packed City Hall until 11 p.m. Tuesday to say they feel as if they've unfairly borne the brunt of budget cuts in recent years. They also promised to stay politically active.

"General employees should not be used as pawns to balance the budget," leader Bill Lundvall said. "Everyone in this chamber has a City Council member and we'd really like to support them."

In the current fiscal year, all the city's workers outside the Police and Fire departments have to take eight days of unpaid leave, amounting to a 3 percent pay cut. Police officers and firefighters, who are represented by powerful professional associations, have contracts that guarantee pay raises for the next couple of years.

The workers -- most of them in jeans and work shirts -- cheered when one woman asked the council, "Without the water department, where would the Fire Department get water to extinguish fires?"

City officials have predicted that they'll have to come up with a combination of $77 million in spending cuts and tax increases to balance next year's budget, possibly requiring up to 260 layoffs -- mostly of general employees. Also, officials have discussed outsourcing entire departments, such as equipment services or information technology.

Lundvall and other leaders have been meeting with council members and the city financial staff to push for spending cuts that would preserve jobs, like cutting back on the Trinity River Vision project, tax abatements, take-home vehicles and arts funding.

"To put these people in the unemployment line not only hurts them, but it devastates families," Kim Pool said.

The council has held some preliminary meetings about the budget, but City Manager Dale Fisseler isn't scheduled to release his proposed budget until next month.

Preliminary indications are that he is considering a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. And he's said that the city's current system of pension benefits and retirement healthcare is unsustainable.

Responding to the employees, Mayor Mike Moncrief was conciliatory but cautionary.

"Some of the things you put on that list were not that unreasonable; some of the things you put on the list are already being addressed," he said. However, he added, "I'm not going to sit here and promise you what will or won't happen with retirement and pensions. But every one of y'all know we have dug ourselves a mighty deep hole."

MIKE LEE, 817-390-7539