Arlington leaders, firefighters face off over civil service proposition

A group of city leaders led by Mayor Jeff Williams has banded together to oppose a voter proposition seeking to establish a civil service system for firefighters, warning that it could lead to reduced response times and cuts in city services.

In recent days, pamphlets from a political action committee called Safety First Arlington PAC have landed in Arlington mailboxes, contending that adopting Proposition 2 would put the city’s firefighters “under labor union control” and add costs that could prompt cuts to the police force and street repairs.

“Labor union civil service will add an expensive level of bureaucracy at City Hall that would cost us millions of dollars over the next decade. That could mean higher taxes just to maintain most basic city services,” says a letter signed by Williams, former mayors Robert Cluck and Richard Greene, and City Council members Sheri Capehart and Robert Shepard.

The head of the Arlington Professional Fire Fighters Association, which mounted a successful petition drive that forced the City Council to put the measure on the May 6 ballot, calls the campaign warnings “fear-mongering,” saying that no union is being created and that firefighter benefits wouldn’t change.

“We think they’re grossly misleading the voters by making those statements,” said David Crow, president of the firefighter association, which counts all but about five firefighters among its 320 dues-paying members.

If Proposition 2 is approved, a local civil service commission would be created using state guidelines to govern the department’s personnel process. Association leaders say it would base decisions mostly on neutral criteria such as written tests and seniority points, eliminating politics from the department’s management and reducing favoritism.

“That’s the whole mechanism behind civil service,” Crow said. “It creates an environment independent of political influence, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

But seven of the city’s eight council members have lined up against the proposition, as well as Arlington school board secretary John Hibbs. They say it would diminish local control in a department they like to tout as among the best in the state.

“We have a well-functioning, high-performing, award-winning fire department, and now you’re going to create a second, bureaucratic group,” said PAC co-chair Steve Zimmer, a retired business consultant and Arlington resident since 1979. “You’ve got a management structure that’s running very efficiently right now, and I don’t want to mess it up.”

Williams said he doesn’t want to see the quality of the fire department decline. “I love our firefighters,” he said. “I’m not interested in mediocrity.”

Cost of civil service

Arlington is the largest city in Texas that doesn’t have a civil service system for public safety employees, Crow maintains. Other North Texas cities with civil service systems include Dallas, Fort Worth, Carrollton, Denton, Hurst, Euless, Haltom City, Garland, Grand Prairie, Irving, Mesquite, Plano and Richardson.

Although civil service commission members are appointed by the city manager and unpaid, implementing the system will be costly. The city estimates that Proposition 2 would cost $348,900, including the hiring of a senior city attorney ($121,000), a paralegal ($70,900) and a part-time human resources consultant ($50,000), plus $25,000 for recurring materials and other expenses.

The cost outline identifies $82,000 in “one-time” costs, leaving about $267,000 that Shepard expects would be annually recurring costs.

“The money has to come from somewhere,” said the council member, adding that he believes a tax-rate increase — which hasn’t occurred in Arlington since 2001 — would be a last resort. Most likely, he said, “It’s going to come out of the fire department budget.”

Since the city has committed to an aggressive schedule of salary increases to bring its employee pay to a more competitive level, Shepard said, “that assumes all we could do from an employment perspective is hire fewer firefighters.”

Crow said the estimated costs are exaggerated, especially regarding the need for another attorney. “We already have a city attorney that’s dedicated to fire department issues,” he said. “For us to bear the entire cost of that attorney, I don’t believe that is correct.”

Hiring regulations

The differences between civil service rules, governed by Chapter 143 of the Texas Local Government Code, and city policy are especially clear in the hiring process.

The city requires a broader array of requirements for candidates including a written test, 1.5-mile run, physical ability test, background check and drug/alcohol check. The civil service rules provide for a written test, a 5-point bonus for military service and a physical exam — but not background or drug testing.

The opposition says this would create a dangerous work environment.

But Lt. Shawn Graham, a 13-year Arlington firefighter who previously worked in Waco, where the fire department has civil service, said Arlington’s department would have all those safeguards. Waco “did all the tests — drug test on hiring and drug test each time you would promote. Look at our neighbor, Fort Worth. They do the physical ability test, background checks — they do all that. Alcohol tests, all that.”

A check of the websites of six area fire departments that operate under civil service — Fort Worth, Dallas, Grand Prairie, Denton, Carrollton and Richardson — showed all require applicants to pass agility, criminal background and drug and alcohol tests, and most added polygraph exams to the mix.

Carrollton also requires a credit history “which demonstrates a commitment to paying just debts.” And Denton requires vision correctable to 20/20 in both eyes, and applicants must have “normal color vision.”

But such details are not what voters will be deciding, Shepard said. Labor and management have to agree to any policy changes, and negotiations require compromise, he said.

“I’d like to think that we would end up in more or less at that same place we are now,” he said. “But there’s no assurance of that.”

Firehouse conflict

The proposition campaign comes as the firefighters association has been publicly lodging complaints with the City Council about Chief Don Crowson and the fire department administration, citing a lack of transparency and communication and flagging morale. They have repeatedly called for Crowson’s termination.

Crowson attributes much of the problem to firefighters’ disdain for his drastic cuts in the overtime budget, a significant paycheck fattener for many.

Crowson declined to comment for this article after the city made the fire department and human resources off limits to the media on the civil service issue. In an earlier interview, he said the current personnel system allows him to put people into positions he believes best serve the department. He said this has allowed him to expand the ranks of minority and women in the department when civil service, because of its reliance on test scores, might have hindered that objective.

At a January meeting, Crowson told the council that the state’s civil service system — established in 1947 — has become outdated as fire departments have become more specialized.

“The world was different,” Crowson said. “Today, the fire department — we’re managing multimillion-dollar EMS contracts, we have public-private partnerships with sports franchises, hospital districts, schools and colleges. We’re your public health team, we’re your bomb squad, we’re your dispatch and emergency operations center.

“Our skill sets are much more comprehensive than what civil service was originally designed for, which was fighting fires.”

Arlington voters twice before have overwhelmingly rejected civil service proposals for the city’s fire and police departments. The first proposition was voted down 7,922 to 4,627 in 1979, and in 1991 the measure lost by a count of 9,843 to 5,277.

Robert Cadwallader: 817-390-7186, @Kaddmann_ST