Houston firefighter back pay in limbo after City Council votes to reverse April layoffs

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The status of $17 million in back pay issued to Houston firefighters in May remains unclear following Houston City Council action June 12.

Council members voted to reverse 220 firefighter layoffs that were approved in April as a means of funding the back pay that was mandated by Proposition B, the voter-approved ballot initiative that required pay parity between Houston police officers and Houston firefighters.

When a judge ruled Proposition B unconstitutional May 15, it invalidated the need for layoffs, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Council’s June 12 action reversed the layoffs but did not rescind the raises.

In the city’s financial department’s calculations, $17 million in pay raises for January through May 2019 was required to comply with Proposition B.

Turner said he does not intend to “claw anything back,” though the city is not legally allowed to give “a $17 million gift.” In the absence of Proposition B, Turner said the city should return to collective bargaining negotiations.

“You can’t give taxpayer money to anyone as a gift no matter how much you may love them,” Turner told reporters June 12. “The hope is that the union would agree to return to the bargaining table, and we stand ready to do that. That’s the regular course of business.”

Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, responded in a statement disputing the claim that collective bargaining is the only way to allow firefighters to keep the raises. On May 21, he called for binding arbitration to settle the ongoing contract disputes between the mayor’s office and the HPFFA.

“The mayor is once again blurring the lines between what is required by law under collective bargaining and his political campaign where anything goes,” Lancton’s statement read. “If any of this was legitimate, he would put it in writing and follow the law.”

Council Members Michael Kubosh and Brenda Stargdig both said they hope the city can find a way to avoid rescinding the pay.

“We already have a morale issue, [and] we have a number of other issues,” Stardig said. “If we can, we should try to show good will and try to make it work.”

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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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