Paying down debt now will make raising wages easier in coming years, a Texarkana, Texas, official said during contract negotiations with the firefighters union Thursday.
As the talks turned to budget priorities, Deputy City Manager Kyle Dooley said a one-time bond repayment planned for the coming fiscal year could set the stage for significant pay increases for firefighters later. Because of that payment, for the time being the city can provide all city employees, including firefighters, only a 2 percent cost of living raise, he said.
Dooley floated the idea of striking a short-term deal with the union that would include revisiting firefighter compensation every other year, a schedule that aligns with the city's current compensation plan. Begun in 2016, the plan compares Texarkana's police and firefighter compensation with that in similar Texas cities, with the aim of keeping pay competitive.
Dooley also raised the issue of which cities best reflect Texarkana and can fairly be used for such comparisons. The union's proposed raises are based on its survey of fire departments in 15 other Texas cities. It found that Texarkana, Texas, Fire Department employees on average make about 23 percent to 34 percent less than their counterparts, depending on rank and seniority. The city's compensation plan compares Texarkana with seven other cities, all of which are also on the union's list. On Thursday, both sides in the talks agreed to work out a list of cities agreeable to all and use it for wage comparisons in the future.
Debt reduction has been city staff's highest priority as they prepare the Fiscal Year 2019 budget for a City Council vote, Dooley said. The plan would pay off some 2012 bonds with a one-time expenditure of more than $5.1 million, freeing about $1 million a year in debt service the city currently pays and saving more than $313,000 in interest. The bonds originally were scheduled to be paid off in 2023.
The resultant savings would put the city in a much better position than it has been in recently, when staff have struggled to balance the budget, Dooley said.
"Getting our general fund stable and built on a good foundation was the most important thing for us this year. That's why you see us paying down debt, because we think we will be able now to not always start behind the eight ball. You know, every year we've sat down the last few years, we're running the first set of numbers through the budget, our expenditures would show to be a million, million-and-half more than what our expected revenue was, so we would go through and try to make the cuts to balance the budget. If we can make the payment on the debt service and pay this bond off this year, it will set the stage for us hopefully not to have to do that," he said.
Only then would the higher-percentage firefighter raises that everyone wants be possible, Dooley said.
"I think our plan has always been to keep us competitive with all the other cities that we can and pay all our employees, not just the fire department but everybody, as competitive a wage as we can. Currently, right now, making a big move this year is just not possible with what we've got going. But we looked at that. It's not like we came into the budget saying, 'We're just going to shoot for a cost of living adjustment,' OK?
"For me to sit here and tell you every year we're going to be able to go have the ability to raise salaries 5, 6, 8 percent, whatever, to get us back to that median, I can't guarantee that for years out because there's a lot more unknowns to talk about. But I can tell you going in that it's not our plan every year just to sit down and say, 'OK, we're going to have a cost of living adjustment this year.' It would be to compare to those cities, see where we're at and see if we're staying competitive. Then we've got to come up with a way of how we can afford to do that," he said.
Union members questioned whether the city's budget priorities are a matter of necessity or choice and warned that delaying pay raises will negatively affect the quality of the fire service.
"We're not getting good employees. We're getting the employees that can't get hired anywhere else. Our employees come from within a 150-mile radius of Texarkana. If you live halfway between here and Longview you're not going to come to work in Texarkana when you can go to work down there for $15,000 a year more.
"This city's going to have to make a decision to take a bigger chunk of its budget and put towards the fire department so it has a good fire department and good fire employees going forward. We can sit here and say we spent this money on this and that and this and that every year, and it's never going to be there," said TTFD Capt. Scott Daniel, union local vice president.
The negotiations continue at 8:30 a.m. today in the second-floor conference room of City Hall, 220 Texas Blvd. The sides agreed to begin today's session by addressing a list of less contentious topics not yet discussed, such as personnel file policy. The meeting is open to the public.
Open meetings expected to be the final two of the negotiations are slated for 1:30 p.m. Aug. 22 and 8:30 a.m. Aug. 23. The sides have set an Aug. 24 deadline to reach an agreement ahead of the expected budget vote Sept. 10.
On Twitter: @RealKarlRichter