HOUSTON — Estimating the cost of voter-mandated 29 percent pay raises for all Houston firefighters presents a challenge in planning for the fiscal year 2019-20 budget and also highlights a frustration with the city’s structurally imbalanced budget model that some City Council members say has been a longstanding concern.
The model typically requires the finance department to find one-time funding sources, such as land sales, lawsuit settlements and opportunities to refinance debt, as means to eliminate a budget deficit ahead of each fiscal year.
Questions raised while trying to find funding for firefighter raises aim to find answers to a long-discussed problem, District A Council Member Brenda Stardig said at a Houston City Council Budget and Fiscal Affairs meeting April 23.
“This council body has been asking these questions for a long time, and we’ve been trying to be as patient as possible, so to act like it just happened, it didn’t just happen,” she said.
The cost of implementing voter-approved Proposition B, which mandates pay parity between Houston police officers and Houston firefighters, was originally estimated at $100 million by the city’s finance department. More recent calculations, which re-evaluated how to distribute pay based on education level, totaled $79 million.
“Even without [Proposition B], we’re $120 [million]to $140 million in the hole, and we have to go out and find that for the next year,” City Controller Chris Brown said.
Before FY 2019-20 begins, knowing the exact cost of the raises will become increasingly important, Brown said.
On April 25 Houston City Council approved sending 60-day layoff notices to 220 firefighters in addition to the 47 municipal workers and 67 fire cadets that already received notices in Mid-April. Unlike municipal layoffs, firefighters layoffs require council approval. Turner said that if the firefighters were not laid off, upwards of 220 more municipal workers would receive layoffs instead.
The Houston Professional Firefighters Association remains in court-ordered mediation with Mayor Sylvester Turner and The Houston Police Officers Union as of May, Community Impact Newspaper’s publication date.
“It’s a moving target, but at the end of the day our office is trying to be assertive and put a little pressure on the fact that we need to know what the costs of Prop. B are,” Brown said. “We need to have some firm numbers as we get into the budget process.”
The process, which begins with budget presentations from individual departments throughout May, continues with a public hearing, amendments added by City Council members and a vote June 5.