Protesters target City over firefighter benefit reductions
In the shadow of protests, the Arlington City Council is expected to approve the first reading of a civil service ordinance Tuesday evening
Residents upset over the City’s decision to curb benefits for firefighters gathered in front of Arlington City Hall Tuesday afternoon to protest.
Passing cars honked and waved to approximately 15 protesters holding signs soliciting support for Arlington’s firefighters.
“It’s hard to expect anything from city government,” said Brianna Willuhn, who organized Tuesday’s event. “We want to spread awareness to the public about what the City is doing to the firefighters. If they’ll do it to them, then they’ll do it to anybody.”
Willuhn, a lifelong resident, organized the protest because she felt it was the right thing to do. She said her mom is an Arlington firefighter and will be affected by the cuts.
“I don’t think it’s right to take benefits away from firefighters,” Willuhn said. “They’re the ones that when you call they will come.”
The City Council is expected to eliminate several benefits for firefighters in response to voters’ approval of civil service, a move that some have called “punitive” and “retaliatory.” Some of the benefits expected to be eliminated include sick pay sellback, swing pay, and EMT-I pay.
Civil service was approved by voters in May, and the City estimates the cost to implement it will run as high as $580,000 for the first year. The reduction in benefits was proposed as a means to offset the cost.
District 1 Councilman Charlie Parker has been a vocal opponent of civil service, going as far on his online blog to suggest the City should eliminate all benefits that aren’t expressly provided by Texas’ civil service statute. At least 11 additional benefits were identified that could also be revoked, including 401(k) match and assignment pays.
City Manager Trey Yelverton recommended the Council keep these extra benefits, which are authorized in the Fiscal Year 2018 budget, but noted that few departments offer benefits like 401(k) match or stability pay. He said retaining these benefits keeps the Fire Department competitive.
Lynna Paine is the wife of an Arlington firefighter and said benefit reductions doesn’t just affect firefighters, but their families as well.
“It’s forcing a lot of guys into early retirement, and forcing some of the newer guys to look for employment with other departments,” Paine said.
At least 20 senior firefighters have put in their paperwork for retirement, and another 25 younger firefighters recently took the City of Fort Worth’s firefighter exam.
“I knew there would be some retaliation over civil service, but I didn’t think it would ever be this extreme,” Paine said. “I feel like this is 100 percent retaliation.”
Paine was holding a sign which ridiculed Parker. She said she was aware of what Parker had been posting online, and that she doesn’t think it’s appropriate behavior for a city councilmember.
One off-duty firefighter at the protest spoke on the issue, but requested not to be named out of fear of facing retaliation. He’s worked as an Arlington firefighter for about seven years.
He said “a lot” of firefighters are being moved from the stations at which they’ve worked for a long time as a “punitive” action for the recent influx of retirements.
“We’ve got guys with 15 years of experience at their stations and are very invested,” he said. “(Management) is going to say they’re trying to ‘balance’ the shifts, but that’s not what’s happening.”
He believes the City is shifting people around to create division and in-fighting amongst firefighters.
“If they can get us fighting amongst ourselves, then we can’t fight against them,” he said, pointing to City Hall.
Civil service is set to take effect on Oct. 30. The City Council was engaged in afternoon meetings during the protest, and were not immediately available to comment on the issue.
The Council will vote on an ordinance to implement civil service during Tuesday evening’s meeting, which starts at 6:30 p.m. on the third floor of City Hall.