Houston mayor, fire union discuss pay raise phase-in to prevent layoffs

The meeting marked a rare sign of progress in the long-running feud over the Prop B ballot referendum

Jasper Scherer
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Officials from the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association met with Mayor Sylvester Turner for the first time in months Friday and announced they would seek union members’ approval of his offer to phase in Proposition B over three and a half years if the city meets certain conditions.

The meeting marked a rare sign of progress in the long-running feud over the Prop B ballot referendum, which requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and experience. Voters approved the charter amendment last November.

Until Friday, negotiations largely had played out through the media and public offers, with time running out before city council votes on proposed firefighters layoffs. Adding to the pressure is the city’s need to pass a balanced budget in time for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. Even without the required firefighters raises, the city faces a budget gap of $117 million.

After the meeting, Turner released a statement saying the fire union’s terms were "not consistent" with discussions held at the meeting. Fire union President Marty Lancton said he had, in fact, laid out the union's terms to the mayor, which include a guarantee that no firefighters will be laid off "before, during or after implementation of Proposition B."

"We said it implicitly and explicitly," Lancton said.

Turner acknowledged that the union delivered a copy of the letter containing the terms, but he accused Lancton of publicizing it before the meeting. Lancton said that also was untrue.

Nonetheless, Turner wrote, “I hope you will refrain from further steps that will undermine my effort to find common ground.”

Aside from the no-layoff guarantee, union officials said any phase-in agreement would have to be ratified through a collective bargaining agreement.

Lancton also said the city must provide the firefighters with "complete access to city financial and budget information.”

The firefighters repeatedly have asked Turner to open the city’s books and reveal underlying financial information used to calculate Prop B’s price tag. Firefighters say the city’s refusal to turn over the data has been key in preventing a deal, because they want to verify that Turner’s offer would fully implement the raises mandated by Prop B.

Despite the disagreement over tactics, both sides appeared hopeful they could make progress at a subsequent meeting scheduled for Monday. Houston City Council is scheduled on Wednesday to consider a measure that would authorize 220 firefighter layoffs.

The city issued 60-day layoff notices Friday to 47 municipal employees across four departments: Administration and Regulatory Affairs, Health, Library and Parks and Recreation. The city already has sent 60-day layoff notices to 67 fire cadets who had completed their training. Turner had refused to promote the cadets, saying it would violate a hiring freeze he implemented last September. The mayor, however, did swear-in more than 60 police cadets last month.

The layoffs are part of Turner's plan to account for the cost of Proposition B, which his administration has estimated would cost the city $79 million annually if it is not phased in over multiple years.

City Controller Chris Brown last week raised several questions about the city’s estimate, which assumes firefighters would not receive five types of incentive pay currently granted to police. Brown questioned whether the city would violate parity if it omits the incentive pays.

In his letter to Turner, Lancton said the union would only ask members to vote on the three-and-a-half-year offer if it includes “complete parity with HPD, including both base pay and incentives.”

Lancton also said Turner would need to agree not to reduce fire and EMS services, which Fire Chief Sam Peña said would occur without a phase-in of the mandated raises.

Friday’s development came three days after Peña told a city council committee that no fire stations would close as a result of layoffs spurred by Prop B despite rumors to the contrary.


©2019 the Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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