Austin Finance Limits

City of Austin sued for financing union activities with taxpayer money

Texas State Capitol in Austin
Texas State Capitol in Austin / AP
September 7, 2016

A Texas think tank is challenging a policy in the city of Austin that finances union activities with taxpayer dollars.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a free market group, is suing the city, as well as International Association of Fire Fighters Local 975, claiming that the use of union release time violates the Texas state constitution.

Release time is a popular practice in which public employees who become union representatives continue to draw a government paycheck. The suit argues that this is an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars because the employee’s function serves a private entity rather than the general public.

"The City of Austin (‘Austin’) is engaged in a taxpayer-funded practice that diverts firefighters away from some of the most crucial services Austin provides, and instead places them under the direction and control of a private labor organization for its own use and benefit," the suit says. "Not only do the majority of release time activities not advance a public purpose, they are often directly opposed to the interests of Austin and Austin taxpayers."

Neither the city nor IAFF Local president Bob Nicks returned request for comment.

Austin’s 2015 collective bargaining agreement with the union allows firefighters working as labor representatives to receive payment for 5,600 hours of release time each year. That policy costs taxpayers millions of dollars, according to the suit.

The plaintiffs also challenge the lack of transparency in the program, since "neither the AFA, its President, nor any of its members are contractually required to provide an accounting to Austin for how they use … release time." The city is also bound by the agreement not to direct or exercise control over the use of release time.

The lack of oversight runs counter to the Texas gifts clause, which holds that "public control must be retained over the expenditures to ensure the public purpose is accomplished."

"Plaintiffs request the Court declare that those benefits therefore constitute impermissible subsidies and gifts to private associations, exceeding Defendants’ lawful powers in violation of the Texas Constitution," the suit says.

The Texas suit comes about a year after the Arizona Court of Appeals unanimously struck down a similar arrangement in Phoenix. The Goldwater Institute, a free market think tank, successfully argued the Phoenix Police Department should not pay officers who are no longer involved in law enforcement.

"Release time provisions do not require that officers in the full-time release positions perform any specific duties," the appeals court ruled. "The City’s expenditure for the release time was grossly disproportionate to what it received in return, given the lack of obligation imposed on PLEA."

The Goldwater Institute is now assisting the plaintiffs in Austin in their legal crusade. Jon Riches, the organization’s general counsel, said that the release time provisions in Austin mirror those that were struck down in Phoenix.

"Under the Texas Constitution, the government is prohibited from spending public money for purely private purposes," he said in a release. "With release time, Austin Taxpayers are required to foot the bill for the activities of a private union. This is an abuse of tax dollars and violates Texas law."

Published under: Unions