Voters give Houston firefighters raises

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On Nov. 6, Houston voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition B, which calls for raises for Houston firefighters to equalize their pay with Houston police officers of similar rank and seniority.

The move will cost the city an estimated $85 million-$98 million the first year, city officials have said.

“That is unsustainable, and I will tell you the city cannot afford it,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

City officials are considering laying off hundreds of firefighters and police officers to make ends meet, but first the city will see if Proposition B is legal.

The Houston City Council on Nov. 28 narrowly approved spending up to $500,000 to hire a legal firm to determine if Proposition B is legally valid. If so, layoffs would likely be necessary, Turner said.

On Nov. 30 the Houston Police Officers’ Union sued in district court to stop the implementation of Proposition B, as some council members expected it would. The suit claims Proposition B is unconstitutional and diminishes the police union’s bargaining power, according to Community Impact Newspaper’s media partner ABC 13.

Despite city officials encouraging voters to shoot down Proposition B, which resulted from a petition from the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, both sides agree on at least one thing: The voters have clearly spoken.

“There’s no turning back,” said Dave Martin, Houston City Council District E member, who represents the Clear Lake area.

Controversial vote

For weeks leading up to Nov. 6 city officials, including Turner and Martin, encouraged residents to vote against Proposition B, which would give firefighters a 25 percent raise.

There are four Houston fire stations in the Clear Lake area: Fire Stations No. 71, No. 72, No. 93 and No. 94.

Turner said firefighters had turned down several smaller proposed raises in recent years. The loss of several smaller raises caused Houston firefighters to seek a much larger raise all at once, Martin said.

Turner recently negotiated pay raises with municipal workers, police and firefighters. Municipal workers will receive a 3 percent raise spread out over the next three years. Police will receive a 7 percent raise over three years, he said.

The city offered firefighters a 9.5 percent raise over three years that the firefighters union has rejected, Turner said.

HPFFA President Marty Lancton denied Turner’s claim and declined to elaborate.

Lancton said after contract negotiations fell through, Proposition B resulted from a petition of 60,000 signatures from residents who wanted to vote to determine if firefighters’ pay should be equal to police officers’. The petition required only 20,000 signatures to be put on the ballot, Lancton said.

“The city put arguably every roadblock that you could possibly put up, and that was overcome,” he said of the petition.

Firefighters, their families and Houston Fire Department supporters showed up to polling locations in droves to encourage voters to support Proposition B, Martin said.

However, Martin said firefighters did not give voters the full truth: Proposition B passing will result in huge budget cuts, possibly including layoffs of city employees.

Voters approved Proposition B with 59 percent of voters in favor of it. Martin predicted voters would approve Proposition B by 60 percent, he said.

“I figured that was gonna happen because everyone likes firefighters, including me,” Martin said.

Even Fire Chief Sam Peña opposed Proposition B, saying firefighters’ raises must be done responsibly to not adversely affect emergency services.

“I can’t afford to lose any firefighters,” he said.

Not all voters may have realized the effect approving Proposition B will have, but they will when police response times increase and potholes take longer to get fixed, Martin said.

City officials have said several times they are against Proposition B not because they believe firefighters do not deserve raises but because a 25 percent raise across 4,000 employees is devastating to the city’s bottom line.

Additionally, city officials do not believe firefighters should have pay equal to police officers because they are different jobs with different requirements and workloads.

Martin said firefighters work five 24-hour shifts a month compared to the 40 hours a week police officers work. Part of firefighters’ shifts includes sleeping, Martin said.

Lancton disagreed, saying firefighters work an average of 46.7 hours a week, often without overtime pay. Firefighters in other major cities, such as Dallas, Chicago and New York City, have pay parity with police departments, Lancton said.

“We should ensure we are compensating and treating brave firefighters and paramedics … and we are valuing their service and sacrifice the same as police officers,” he said.

Legal questions

The city used the petition’s language as written and placed it on the ballot, which has led to some questions, Martin said.

The ballot language does not say when the raises will go into effect or if they will happen immediately or be phased in, he said. It was the city’s responsibility to write legal and valid ballot language, Lancton said.

Lancton believes the collective bargaining process could be the best way to reach a decision, and the union remains committed to working with anyone to see Proposition B through, Lancton said.

Regardless of how the language is interpreted, the voters clearly supported giving firefighters a raise, so the city will follow their will one way or another, Martin said.

“The voters have spoken,” he said.

How the city will pay for the raises is unknown. Officials, including Turner, have floated the idea of layoffs.

“Quite frankly, that’s the only way you can do it,” Turner said.

Other options could be tax increases or amending the budget and cutting from other departments, Martin said.

Martin is not in favor of either; it is not appropriate to cut from departments other than the fire department to pay for the raises, he said.

“We made the budget, we voted on it, and we don’t have the ability to raise revenue to pay for it unless people want us to enact a tax increase, and I’m not a big fan of tax increases,” Martin said.

Martin said Proposition B passing could have ramifications years down the road.

“Once we open up Pandora’s box … who’s the next one to come ask us for pay parity?” he said.

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Jake Magee
Jake Magee has been a print journalist for a few years, covering topics such as city government, education, business and more. Starting off at a daily newspaper in southern Wisconsin, Magee covered two small cities before being promoted to covering city government in the heart of newspaper's coverage area. He moved to Houston in mid-2018 to be an editor with Community Impact. In his free time, Magee enjoys playing video games, jamming on the drums and bass, longboarding and petting his cat.
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