Houston firefighter layoffs delayed as mayor, fire union continue to spar

Mayor Sylvester Turner and the fire union remain far apart on how to phase in the raises under Prop B


Robert Downen
Houston Chronicle

Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city’s fire union will have another week to try to negotiate the implementation of Proposition B without more firefighters receiving pink slips after City Councilman Dwight Boykins delayed a measure to issue 220 layoffs Wednesday.

Despite meeting twice in the last week, Turner and the fire union remain far apart on how to phase in the raises under Prop B, which requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and experience. One of the chief sticking points is whether firefighters would receive the same pay incentives as police.

The Turner administration has put the cost of fully implementing Prop B at about $80 million a year. To fund the required raises, Turner and Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña have said the department would need to cut hundreds of positions and restructure the department shift schedule. Turner has said phasing in the raises over five years would eliminate the need for any layoffs.

Already, the city has sent layoff notices to more than 100 firefighter cadets and municipal employees, and City Council was expected to vote on another 220 staff reductions at its Wednesday meeting.

Hours after Boykins tagged the layoffs measure, delaying a vote for a week, Turner’s office released a memo in which he said that phasing Prop B in over three and a half years would require laying off 47 HFD cadets. Absent a new funding mechanism, he said, other employees in city departments also are likely to receive pink slips.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association has said it would put the three-and-a-half-year phase-in to a vote among its members if the city agrees not to lay off any firefighters and produces the financial data behind the Turner’s calculations of the cost of the pay raises and incentives.

The memo released by the mayor’s office Wednesday answered few of their questions, HPFA President Marty Lancton said.

“What he sent over is the exact same stuff that he’s regurgitated” for months, Lancton said. “...It is the same information put in a different form.”

The city’s legal department also responded to a memo earlier this month from Controller Chris Brown in which Brown raised questions about how Turner’s administration calculated Prop B’s cost. In the memo, Brown asked whether the city would be violating the parity ordinance by omitting certain incentives that police officers receive.

In response, City Attorney Ron Lewis and Finance Director Tantri Emo wrote that Prop B “would require the City to pay members of the Houston Fire Department for work that they do not do.” For example, they wrote, firefighters “do not engage in patrol activities as do police officers. Police officers are incentivized to work in the patrol division and accept the attendant risk.”

Though the city has included patrol pay, its cost estimate assumes firefighters would not receive mentoring and field training incentive pay.

In the memo, Lewis and Emo wrote that those types of pays were “affected by the timing” of the Houston police union’s recent pay raise, which was approved before Prop B was incorporated into the charter.

“Prop B language appears to have been based on old meet and confer provisions,” the memo reads, referring to the terms of the police union’s contract. “Prop B is not retroactive in application.”

The fire union contends the city would be violating the parity ordinance if it denies firefighters incentive pay listed in the ballot language.

Also Wednesday, Turner shot down the idea of using a mediator to help work out an agreement with the fire union, rejecting calls from several council members to consult an outside party as the two sides trying to reach a phase-in agreement by the end of this fiscal year on June 30.

“We are moving forward and we are under time constraints,” Turner told reporters. “But there is no reason for any further delays by putting in another third party. We either go with full implementation or go with the phase-in approach."

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©2019 the Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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