Houston firefighters march on City Hall over pay, layoffs
May Sylvester Turner has contended the fire department should bear the costs of Prop. B, citing a city-commissioned report that recommends a reduction in firefighters
Kara Rathbone’s story may sound familiar to many firefighters who marched with her Tuesday along Bagby Street in downtown Houston.
Rathbone’s husband, Austin, drives to work from their home in Bellville, about 70 miles away. A seven-year Houston firefighter, he has received scant raises since joining the department, and makes ends meet by installing irrigation systems on the side and working for a small fire department near Bellville, where about 4,300 people live.
“That pay is everything. We have two kids. I have to stay home with them. I have a part-time job,” she said. “…The small amount that we get every two weeks in pay, it doesn't cover what we need.”
Fed up with the pace at which Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration has carried out Proposition B — the voter-approved November referendum granting firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and experience — the Rathbones joined several hundred others in a march on City Hall where union officials demanded full implementation of the raises and called on Turner to “stop playing games with public safety.”
The demands by Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton came a day after Turner rolled out his plan to fund firefighters’ pay raises in part by laying off 400 to 500 city employees, including firefighters. Several city council members briefed on the plan last week said up to 400 firefighters could be cut.
“Let me reiterate this: We are going to win this fight,” Lancton said to thunderous applause and cheers.
Lancton also identified six fire stations he said firefighters were told the city would close as part of the layoff plan.
Turner spokesman Alan Bernstein denied that.
“City officials did not give anyone a list of fire stations that will close or that may close,” he said.
Fire Chief Sam Peña confirmed in a text that no station closures had been set, noting that Turner and city council must approve any moves.
Meanwhile, Turner said Monday evening that the city will send out firefighters’ first Prop. B-adjusted paychecks in May. Firefighters also will receive lump-sum checks covering Jan. 1 through the first part of May, the mayor said. The city plans to dip into its fund balance to cover the $31 million cost of back pay.
For months, Turner has said firefighters deserve raises, but that Prop. B’s $80-to-$100 million cost is squeezing the city’s revenue-capped budget because it did not come with a funding source. In an open letter earlier this month, Turner wrote that he does not believe voters, who approved Prop. B by about 18 points, “intended to place our city in financial turmoil.”
The mayor’s message fell flat with the firefighters, who held signs Tuesday marked on one side with the fire union logo and the word “Solidarity,” and the other with phrases such as “Stop Playing With Public Safety” and “The Voters Are Not Stupid, Mayor.”
Ricky Johnson, a firefighter of 25 years from Kingwood, echoed the message, arguing that Turner’s administration is “playing politics with public safety.”
“They're putting our lives in jeopardy and they're putting the citizens of Houston's lives in jeopardy,” Johnson said.
The firefighters marched from the George H.W. Bush monument at Sesquicentennial Park for several blocks until they reached City Hall, accompanied by bagpipes playing at the front of the pack.
At the march were several of the firefighters’ political allies, including Council members Dwight Boykins and Michael Kubosh, and mayoral candidates Tony Buzbee and Bill King. Both councilmen spoke to the crowd at City Hall, along with Texas State Association of Fire Fighters President John Riddle and Sandy McGhee, vice president of the International Association of Firefighters district that encompasses Houston.
Both union officials laid into Turner for the way he has handled the labor dispute and Prop. B.
“I'm telling you today, the IAFF does not back down from bullies like Sylvester Turner,” McGhee said.
If anything, the rally appeared to boost the spirits of firefighters who have experienced a range of emotions during the Prop. B saga, from excitement over the referendum’s passage to worry over impending layoffs.
"It does affect the morale, but we're still going to do what we do, and we'll always continue to do that,” said Daniel Gutierrez, a Houston firefighter. “We show up, we work, we do our job."
Turner has contended the fire department should bear the costs of Prop. B, citing a city-commissioned report that recommends a reduction in firefighters. The union disputes those results, pointing to a separate city report that advises otherwise.
Since Prop. B passed, city and fire union officials have attempted to negotiate a way of phasing in the raises over multiple years to avoid layoffs, though the two sides have yet to come together on a deal. Without an agreement, Turner has said, he has no choice but to cut personnel, because the city must balance its budget each fiscal year.
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