In a victory for Beaumont firefighters Wednesday, District Judge James Mehaffy upheld an arbitration decision awarding them a 9 percent raise every year for three years. City administrators had contended that the arbitrator had made mistakes by not evaluating all evidence the city presented.
However, Mehaffy, judge of the 58th District Court, said substituting his judgment for the arbitrator’s decision would have been the “worst kind of judicial activism.”
“In the case at hand, the burden is upon the city to prove the arbitrator made a gross mistake to such a degree that there is evidence of bad faith,” Mehaffy said. “I do not find that the mistakes or fact of law, if any, that were made by the arbitrator were mistakes of bad faith.”
City Manager Kyle Hayes said the decision will cost the city $8.5 million and force a tax hike or service cuts to afford raises that would take average firefighter pay from $54,000 to $70,000 in three years.
The first two years of the award will come out of the emergency fund balance, Hayes said, but for the third year, the city might run into trouble when the fire department payroll jumps from $13 million to $17 million.
“Where do you go find $4 million?” he asked.
Galen Key, International Association of Firefighters Local Union No. 399 president, said the city should redirect funding targeted for other city projects and put it toward firefighter pay.
Firefighters have pointed out several municipal projects they consider frivolous spending.
They noted a $21.5 million rehabilitation of Calder Avenue from Main Street to Phelan. The project would take 900 homes out of the flood plain and would reduce flooding, city officials have said.
Another project noted was the $15.6 million repaving and rehabilitation of Phelan Boulevard from Interstate 10 to Dowlen Road and a similar $6 million project for Fannin between Fourth and 11th streets.
Also listed were downtown improvements — including brick sidewalks, lighting, landscaping and the downtown event center and lake park.
“When the firefighters get a raise, they say they are going to raise taxes,” Key said. “It just depends on where they choose to spend the money.”
Hayes said the projects are part of a different budget funded over an 18- to 20-year period. The personnel budget is separate.
The Calder project is using more than $23 million in federal money that will go toward area drainage issues, Hayes said.
“The federal government thought it was a worthwhile project to do it,” Hayes said. “It has serious drainage issues, and the street is in very rough condition in a number of places.
“Our street engineers and public works director and I look at these streets, and they know when streets are failing and what’s the useful life of an existing street, and that’s how recommendations are made to the City Council.”
At the heart of the pay debate is to whom the firefighters should be compared.
The union contends that by state law, their salaries should compare to those of their refinery counterparts, who make about 30 percent more.
In the Texas Statutes Local Government Code, Chapter 174 governing Fire and Police Employee Relations, section 174.021, it says, “REQUIRED. A political subdivision that employs fire fighters, police officers, or both, shall provide those employees with compensation and other conditions of employment that are:
(1) substantially equal to compensation and other conditions of employment that prevail in comparable employment in the private sector; and
(2) based on prevailing private sector compensation and conditions of employment in the labor market area in other jobs that require the same or similar skills, ability, and training and may be performed under the same or similar conditions. (Added by Acts 1993, 73rd Leg., ch. 269, Â§ 4, eff. Sept. 1, 1993.)”
However, the city wants firefighter wages compared to pay in similar-sized Texas cities.
Wednesday’s ruling was the latest step in the fight between firefighters and the city.
On Oct. 3, Mehaffy ordered the two parties to mediation to give negotiations a “good-faith effort.”
After 13 hours of mediation last week, the two sides could not agree and returned to court Wednesday. The mediation marked the sixth time the two sides met in a little more than a year without reaching a compromise.
In the past 12 years, the city and firefighters union had to resort to contract arbitration three of four times.
The two sides will return to court Monday at 8 a.m. to discuss whether the award is retroactive to October 2005 or goes into effect this month.
City officials will discuss appealing the latest decision during an executive session next week, Hayes said.