Hiring of new firefighters in Windcrest delayed

Megan Armstrong San Antonio News

The financial impact of the coronavirus on city income is on every city officials’ mind and that’s no more evident than in Windcrest, which is on the brink of adding six paid firefighters to its payroll.

City Council voted in February to hire the city’s first-ever paid firefighters to bolster its ability to respond to emergencies in the city. Plans were to have the six firefighters vetted and hired by April 6, but the onset of the coronavirus pandemic put those plans on hold.

Council discussed the hiring at its April 6 meeting as it began to consider the inevitable — sinking sales tax revenue due to businesses having to reduce staff, restructure their service or close altogether.

“What we have done is definitely cut back on our expenditures,” City Manager Rafael Castillo said. “We have been monitoring all of our expenses as closely as possible.”

Castillo said the city will see how the coronavirus pandemic shutdown has impacts the city’s retail, fast food and remaining businesses in mid-June, when the May sales tax revenue report is received.

“First, our March sales reports will be coming in by mid-April. That first report is only going to show about half of the impact, or the first two weeks of the lockdown,” Castillo said. “By the time we get to June, we’ll pretty much have a sound view of where we’re at, a more detailed analysis of where we’re going.”

Among the top concerns is filling those firefighting positions. In the meantime, Castillo said, the vetting, background checks and interview process will continue.

“There are some decisions we might need to make later, but I think it’s important to be ready,” said Mayor Dan Reese, a former firefighter and fire chief. “COVID-19 has become an issue but I think the last thing we want to do is to stop everything and wait. We should be moving forward, and hopefully we’ll have the funding to proceed.”

Councilman Frank Archuleta questioned whether the city’s plans were to go ahead and hire all six in spite of the financial situation.

“We didn’t say anything about hiring these guys one, two or three at a time. What we agreed on is hiring six career firefighters,’ Archuleta said.

He acknowledged the city’s decision to hold off, for at least the time being, on making the hires. But he reminded council that its prior decisions referred to hiring six firefighters by a certain date.

“We’re still planning to hire at one time, as far as I know, six career firefighters, not spread out over a period of time,” he added.

Councilman Gene Turner countered that city council approved the hirings but is not directly involved with the hiring process, which falls on the city’s day-to-day leadership.

“We approved the hiring of six career firefighters. Whether the fire chief hires them all at one time, or one or two at a time, has nothing to do with the agreement that we approved to hire six firefighters,” Turner said.

“How they (Castillo and Fire Chief Daniel Kramer) … go in and hire those individuals, that’s their thing, that’s what they do. We just give them the tools to execute their jobs,” Turner added.

Archuleta reminded his fellow council members — conducting the meeting via a teleconference call — of the impact the COVID-19 “Stay Home, Work Home” declaration will have on other parts of the city.

“The possible declining sales tax impacts other things. EDC gets their funding from sales tax. The WCCP gets their funding from sales tax, that’s the post office,” Archuleta said. “Some businesses, we don‘t know yet, may not come back. We may be headed for a recession.”

Reese sought to calm fears among council and Windcrest residents listening to the webcast.

Councilwoman Joan Pedrotti said city officials monitor the situation daily, and will keep council and residents abreast of any revenue shortfall.

“We’re being responsible fiscally, we’re being responsible with our employees, and I think that’s the best thing we can do right now,” she said. “I say we stop, take a breath, and wait (to) look at what the numbers say.”

Reese echoed the sentiment.

“The city manager and the finance team are looking at this on a daily basis,” he said. “We probably won’t know how this has affected us until mid-May, mid-June. The message from the council was to hire, so I think it is prudent that we continue with that process.”

The council voted to postpone until May three items that dealt specifically with the fire department and its hires: sick-vacation accrual, outside work policies, and an update on its nepotism regulation.

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