What that could mean for local fire stations is unclear, as a newly installed Harris County district judge could reverse her predecessor’s ruling by invalidating the proposition, meaning both raises and layoffs could be taken off the table. A hearing in the case is set for April 18, and a ruling could come days or weeks after.
The city is also facing a $198 million deficit for FY 2020 and calls from state lawmakers to implement even stricter revenue caps than the city already has.
Mayor Sylvester Turner is planning to issue raises by dipping into the city’s fund balance for fiscal year 2019, but has said layoffs of as many as 400 firefighters and 100 city workers could be needed for the next year, which would be the city’s biggest job cut since 2011. The exact number has not been made clear, but all departments except police could have to cut as much as 5 percent, according to city officials.
“It’s all about dollars and cents,” Turner said. “It’s about trying to balance the budget.”
For firefighters and their families, however, a reduction in staff presents concerns no matter who gets laid off.
“It affects our mortgage, our grocery bill, everything, and it’s not just the firefighters,” Houston resident and wife of a firefighter Sarah Guzman said. “It’s affecting all of us in a lot of ways that people don’t know about.”
Paying for parity
Losing that many firefighters—about 10 percent of the force—would affect staffing levels across the entire system and reduce its capacity to respond, Fire Chief Sam Peña said.
“If you look at [layoffs] systemwide, it may not make a huge difference, but if you look at the particular areas that we’re taking those units out, then you will see an increase in response times,” he said.
Such a cut would be a setback for a budget that is already stretched thin, said Peña, who took the job in 2016 after leading El Paso’s fire department.
“Stop at any of the stations, and you’ll see that they’re bursting at the seams,” Peña said.
Since fiscal year 2009-10, the overall city budget, including special funds and enterprise accounts, has grown 45 percent, and the general fund, which pays for police and fire, has grown by almost 33 percent. In the same period, the fire budget grew by 15 percent.
Some city leaders say budget needs should be guided by what is most efficient regardless of total funding.
“If we’re just increasing the budget to increase the budget, I don’t know why we would do that,” said City Council Member Greg Travis, whose district includes part of River Oaks. “I wouldn’t do that for any department. … If adding one more [firefighter] makes us more efficient and effective, so be it. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Even if Proposition B is tossed out by the judge or is phased in, Peña said the department needs even more help.
“The tight financial constraints that the city is working under, if we keep status quo, I don’t see us growing the department any time soon,” he said. “I think it’s going to be starved in place.”
Absorbing the losses
Peña is proposing to change the department’s shift schedule to avoid some layoffs and free up resources to be reinvested, but only if he can phase it in over three years. However, even if forced to lay off the estimated 378 needed to fund raises across the board, a shift change could soften the blow to public safety, he said.
The plan requires changing the department’s schedule from four shifts per day to three shifts per day. The department is required to have 845 firefighters on duty on any given shift, per its labor agreement.
Reducing 378 firefighters on a four-shift model will mean 25 fire apparatuses or 94 firefighters out of service per day, whereas a shift change would result in 11 to 13 apparatuses out per day, according to Peña.
“I think it makes even more sense to go to a different shift pattern in light of this,” he said.
In either schedule, firefighters would not be required to work more than 46.7 hours per week on average, after which overtime pay kicks in, per state law.
A three-shift schedule would assign more firefighters per shift and have extra coverage to offset the days off each firefighter would get to stay under the hour limit, Peña said. With this added redundancy, the department could absorb the 150 to 160 staffers it loses each year through attrition that otherwise would be cut through a layoff, he said.
The department adopted the four-shift model in 1993 as part of a federal mandate to increase opportunities for minorities. Peña said city attorneys have advised him the department can still meet the requirements of that decree in the new schedule.
While union approval is not required to implement a shift change, Marty Lancton, Houston Firefighters Union Local 341 president, said he would not support any proposals that result in a reduction of staff.
“Service reduction is service reduction, whether it’s layoffs or attrition,” he said.
Turner, who would need to sign off on a shift change along with the City Council, is seriously considering backing the plan, said Alan Bernstein, director of communication for the mayor’s office, even if Proposition B is not carried out. The change was one recommendation from a 2017 report that identified cost-saving strategies for the city, though the fire union has disputed it.
A separate report in 2016 that analyzed staffing found that the city must have a minimum of 3,634 firefighters. The department has more than 4,000 total employees with 3,840 assigned to emergency response, according to the city’s FY 2019 budget.
The city plans to use $31 million of its FY 2019 fund balance to cover the initial cost of raises, effective Jan. 1, 2019. A project plan document shared by the city shows the administration has been working on procedures to change pay scales and cut checks by May 9. Paying for raises in FY 2020 is another matter.
“Creative financing will be the order of the day; I think that is what’s needed to make it work,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor. “The firefighters would probably rather have some raises phased in rather than none, but they could also fight it out legally to the bitter end.”
Lancton has said layoffs should not be necessary. Instead, the union has proposed phasing in raises with a retroactive start date in July 2018, but the city has declined to discuss his proposal, Lancton said.
The city is proposing a five-year time frame to implement raises without layoffs, but the union has refused to acknowledge it. Lancton said he has not seen how the city is defining parity and how incentives are factored in.
“[Turner] has not released any financial data,” he said. “The city has never negotiated in good faith.”
A plan released by the mayor on March 27 calls for $9.62 million in back-pay in FY 2019, or about a 2.3 percent increase to the emergency response salary pool. The plan then calls for incremental raises each year until FY 2023.
As City Council faces an upcoming budget deadline—it must pass an FY 2020 budget this June to take effect July 1—implementing the proposition is just one of several fiscal hurdles to leap.
“The next mayor, whether it is Turner or not, will have to deal with belt-tightening,” Rottinghaus said. “This will be an issue for several decades.”
Boosting funding through tax revenue presents a long-term challenge for the city, whose voters approved a 4.5 percent cap on property tax growth in 2004, Rottinghaus said. Additionally, two bills have been filed in the Texas Legislature to set a 2.5 percent cap, which could further stunt the city’s budget.
Travis, who sits on the city’s pension committee, said another unanswered question is Proposition B’s effects on the long-term obligations the city will owe to retirees under the new pay scheme.
“[Pension funding] will be a problem, but that will be a problem when the rest of us are out of office,” Travis said. “If somebody stands up and has the guts to tackle it now, then they get vilified, and if they kick it down the road, their successors get vilified.”