Mayor Turner, firefighters union president exchange open letters on Proposition B

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Two open letters exchanged by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office and Houston Professional Firefighters Association President Marty Lancton brought negotiations between the two men to the public eye March 27 and 28.

To fund voter-approved pay raises for all Houston firefighters as mandated by Proposition B., the Mayor’s proposal offers a 5-year phase in plan for across-the-board increases to base pay and incentive pay.

The proposal was first sent from the city attorney to the firefighters’ union attorney in February, Turner told reporters March 27.

The plan calls for $9.62 million in back pay in FY 2019, or about 2.3 percent increase to the emergency response salaries. It also includes incremental raises each year until FY 2023.

In a response letter Mar. 28, Lancton stated that the proposal falls short of Proposition B’s call for pay parity between Houston firefighters and Houston police.

“At first glance, the proposal seems to only offer a portion of the pay and benefits over a five-year period,” Lancton stated in the letter.

Lancton said Turner needs to state in writing that the proposal commits to pay parity, stipulating that should Houston Police Officers receive raises, the firefighter’s salaries will increase in a commensurate amount.

Turner announced March 18 that up to 400 layoff notices for firefighters and municipal workers will go out in early to mid-April to fund raises that bring the fire department’s salaries on par with police department salaries for FY 2019. If a phase-in agreement is reached, it will eliminate the need for layoffs, he said.

Addressing the path forward

A discussion sparked by District D City Council Member Dwight Boykin’s proposed trash collection fees aimed at funding the raises, revealed that due to the authority given to the Mayor in certain city government proceedings, several council members said they were in the dark about the progress of negotiations between the Mayor’s office and the union.

“It’s my impression that both sides think the other side is not open to [negotiations]and I think that people hearing you say that you’re willing to continue talking and negotiating is important because the fire department tells me they don’t really believe that you’re sincerely open to that,” District H Council Member Karla Cisneros said, addressing Turner. “I also hear the city’s impression of them and that they’re not open to that and so I don’t understand why the two sides won’t talk.”

A three-page proposal from the firefighter’s union, received by Community Impact Newspaper, calls for the raises to be phased-in over three years with a retroactive start date of July 2018, meaning the raises would be implemented in full by 2020.

District K Council Member Martha Kastex-Tatum and District J Council Member Mike Laster both said they want to see the mayor’s office come up with a 4-year proposal as a compromise if the firefigther’s union will not accept a five-year phase in.

“If the other side doesn’t agree, we have to keep the conversation going,” Castex-Tatum said. “I would ask if we can try to continue to find that sweet spot with the proposal that’s on the table from the firefigther’s union and the five-year proposal that’s on the table from the administration.”

Mayor Turner said he is open to negotiations and said his office can perform financial calculations on a four-year phase in plan, however, it will still result in layoffs.

“Anything less than [five years], there will still be layoffs, they just won’t be as much,” Turner said. “I am open to that.”

It is not likely that the union would accept a plan that calls for any layoffs, which Lancton said are unnecessary even if the raises were fully implemented immediately.

“When you gut HFD from within with yet more budget and personnel cuts, you alone will be responsible for the consequences of diminished public safety services and for the loss of Houston-trained, taxpayer-funded firefighters,” Lancton stated in the letter.

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Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered health care and public education in Austin.
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