Houston city council approves layoff notices for 220 firefighters
This is the latest round of pink slips intended to help offset the cost of implementing raises required by Proposition B
City Council voted Wednesday to send 60-day layoff notices to 220 Houston firefighters, the latest round of pink slips intended to help offset the cost of implementing raises required by Proposition B.
The 10-6 vote came as Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association continue their attempts to come to an agreement on a schedule for implementing the voter-approved pay parity measure. The two sides, along with the Houston Police Officers Union, have been ordered into mediation by a state district judge who said they must continue to negotiate until a deal is reached or the mediator declares an impasse.
Though the council could reverse its Wednesday decision if a deal is struck in mediation, neither side seemed optimistic about that prospect.
“There’s nothing certain about this mediation,” Turner said. “But what is certain is that we have to balance our budget.”
How they voted
HPFFA President Marty Lancton declined to comment on the mediation, citing a confidentiality agreement.
In a statement after the vote, however, the firefighters’ union excoriated Turner and members of council who it said “gutlessly” voted for the layoffs.
“Having manufactured a city fiscal crisis in a tantrum (over) Proposition B, the mayor has become an out-of-control, unaccountable political fraud,” Lancton said in the statement. “His failed leadership and relentless political and legal attacks on firefighter families will now put the communities we serve at risk.”
At the core of the Wednesday vote and ongoing mediation is the time frame for phasing in the Prop B raises, which Turner’s administration estimates will cost about $80 million annually. The raises are mandated under the voter-approved Prop B, which requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police officers of corresponding rank and seniority.
Turner has said the city will have to lay off hundreds of employees, including firefighters, unless the fire union agrees to phase in the raises over five years.
The union has said it would put a three-and-a-half-year implementation to a vote of its members, but only if the city assures that no firefighters will be laid off. The mayor said that is impossible.
The city already has issued layoff notices to 67 Houston Fire Department cadets and 47 municipal employees.
Much of Wednesday’s two-hour discussion revolved around the idea of delaying the layoff vote while mediation continues. Turner pushed back on the idea, pointing out that the council is required to pass a balanced budget by the start of the next fiscal year on July 1.
Even without the cost of firefighter raises, the city already must close a $117 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year.
Council members Mike Knox and Brenda Stardig were among those who requested more time before voting on the layoff notices. They and others said that, regardless of the outcome, the Wednesday vote could derail negotiations at a crucial period.
“Now that the court has intervened and done a mediation, the facts have changed and it is now premature for us to vote on this issue,” Knox said.
Turner rejected that idea, saying it would only create more “pandemonium” and “uncertainty.”
“It’s just not practical and does not stop the problems that we are experiencing,” he said. “The best way, whether you like it or not, is to move forward.”
Sending pink slips to firefighters requires council approval, whereas reducing municipal positions does not.
Because of that, Turner said, any delay in the Wednesday vote would force the city to immediately start sending layoff notices to hundreds of municipal employees to shore up next year’s budget.
Knox called that an attempt by Turner to “hold the civilian employees at gunpoint.”
Councilman Dwight Boykins, a onetime Turner ally who in recent months has increasingly advocated on behalf of the firefighters, voiced similar concerns.
Boykins earlier this year floated the idea of a monthly garbage collection fee on homeowners that he said would raise revenue to finance the raises for firefighters. Council overwhelmingly rejected it.
Boykins has been increasingly critical of the mayor since, accusing Turner of using the layoffs to get revenge on his critics in HFD.
“(Turner’s) ultimate goal,” he told reporters after the Wednesday vote, “was to pay back the firefighters for beating him on Prop B. … It’s not right. So, now you have communities that will be suffering due to this layoff.”
Turner and Fire Chief Samuel Peña have said the layoffs would not significantly impact public safety because of a change in the the department’s shift schedule that was approved Wednesday.
By switching from a four-shift to three-shift model, firefighters will be able to work the same 20 24-hour shifts every 72 days. In some weeks, though, they will work more shifts; in others, they will get regular shifts off.
Some of the staff reductions at HFD will come through attrition, Peña has said.
Peña said he had considered the new shift schedule as a cost-saving move even before Prop B was passed overwhelmingly by voters last November.
He said earlier this month that HFD would need to implement the changes simply to maintain public safety at its current levels, though the fire union maintains that any staff reductions would have negative impacts on operations.
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