Commissioners with the Harris County Emergency Services District No. 9—the taxing district that supports operations for the Cy-Fair Fire Department—voted 4-1 on Dec. 22 to modify the budget previously approved in September, solidifying 4% salary increases for personnel.

Most of the ESD’s revenue comes from sales tax with about one-third coming from local property taxes. With a property tax rate of $0.049984 per $100 valuation, the owner of a $300,000 home would pay $149.95 to ESD No. 9.

The ESD approved a budget Sept. 15, which included raises of up to 10%. At the time, officials were waiting for the U.S. Social Security Administration to release the annual cost-of-living adjustment. Fire Chief Amy Ramon said staff raises are typically tied to that number.

On Oct. 13, the federal government reported an 8.7% increase for 2023—the highest since 1981, Community Impact previously reported.

At the Dec. 22 meeting, Commissioner Kevin Stertzel, a certified public accountant and “fiscal conservative” who was elected in May, expressed disapproval of the way the CFFD has developed budgets in the past. He said the department did not have a financial professional until the hiring of Finance Director Mike Abend on Nov. 10.

Commissioner Bevin Gordon pointed out “meaningful” budgets have been passed for years before this position existed, and CFFD officials said they believe their budget process has historically been successful.

“You bring a wealth of [expertise] that could bring value and synergize, but don’t dismiss what we’ve done before because it’s worked; it just wasn’t your language. ... Let’s come together instead of driving division, and let’s [combine] your expertise, our expertise and make the community better,” Assistant Chief of EMS Justin Reed told Stertzel.
Stertzel proposed 3% salary increases with $2,000 stipends. But members of the Cy-Fair Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 5248 preferred a flat-percentage increase over a one-time stipend that would not be accounted for in future salary increases and would not have a positive impact on long-term benefits.

Meeting demand

Chris Fillmore, who has served as the president of the labor union since May, said offering attractive benefits is a must as fire departments across the nation face staffing shortages.

“The only way we’re going to be able to recruit and hire new people is by having a benefits package that gets them to leave whatever department they’re currently with to come be a part of our department,” he said.

Commissioners and CFFD administration ended up coming to a general agreement of a raise based on the five-year average of the cost-of-living adjustment rather than on one given year. This comes out to 4.06% for 2018-23. In addition, department staff will continue to conduct market analyses every two to three years to ensure wages are competitive enough to recruit and retain top talent.

“We can be passionate; we can love our jobs. That’s all great, and I hope for that from everyone who works here. But compensation is why people work, and we need to make sure that we’re compensating our employees the best,” Gordon said.

Ultimately, Stertzel was the sole commissioner to vote against the now-$74.3 million budget Dec. 22. He left the Sept. 15 meeting before the remaining quorum voted to approve the initial $80 million budget.

The 2023 budget also allocates funding for the hiring of 11 additional full-time firefighters, which the command staff deemed a “necessity” as the department deals with staffing shortages in a fast-growing jurisdiction.