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Houston officials say 'pay parity' could force layoffs

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said Thursday his firefighters deserve raises, but he would be hard-pressed to maintain his budget without reducing his ranks


By Mike Morris
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said Thursday his firefighters deserve raises, but he would be hard-pressed to maintain his department budget without reducing his ranks if voters approve a measure granting firefighters “pay parity” with police.

“This is not a scare tactic,” Peña told a city council committee. “They’re simple numbers. In order to deliver the expected service this community wants, we’re going to have to do restructuring. Even at that, I won’t be able to meet the entire gap.”

ouston Fire Chief Sam Peña said Thursday his firefighters deserve raises, but he would be hard-pressed to maintain his department budget without reducing his ranks. (Photo/Facebook)
ouston Fire Chief Sam Peña said Thursday his firefighters deserve raises, but he would be hard-pressed to maintain his department budget without reducing his ranks. (Photo/Facebook)

Peña’s comments were in response to questions during a city council committee meeting Thursday in regard to a proposed “pay parity” measure the Houston firefighters union wants to appear on the November ballot.

Others, including city officials, business leaders and police union members, told the committee that passage of the parity measure would force the city to cut services and lay off workers and could risk a credit downgrade for City Hall.

“Surely, we would agree that a budgetary impact approaching $100 million per year would put a severe strain on the city and warrant scrutiny,” said Bob Harvey, CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, the region’s dominant business group.

For city officials, the issue is the cost of the pay parity measure. For the firefighters union, the issue Thursday was merely when it will appear on the ballot.

Union leaders skipped the committee hearing, calling it an “unprecedented political stunt intended to distract and confuse the city council and public,” the latest in a long line of machinations they say Mayor Sylvester Turner has undertaken to undercut a proposal he says is unaffordable. The council’s legal duty, firefighters say, is to schedule the item for a vote, then debate its wisdom.

“The meeting went about how we expected,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association president Marty Lancton said. “We lost count of the half-truths and false statements.”

The union last year circulated a petition to put the measure, which would grant firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank, before voters, but the city failed to verify the signatures until ordered by a judge earlier this year. The city secretary’s office completed the verification process in May.

Now, the city council must vote to place the measure on the ballot.

The firefighters union wants the referendum on the November ballot, but Turner said he will let the council choose the election date at its Aug. 8 meeting. The deadline for getting something on the November ballot is Aug. 20.

Turner this week said the committee hearing was intended to be informational.

“When you’re talking to your constituents and they ask you approximately how much this will cost, I’d like to think you’ll want to have an answer,” he told the council Wednesday.

The administration’s cost estimate has risen over time, from an initial guess of about $60 million a year to Turner’s estimate earlier this month of $79 million.

By Thursday, that figure was out of date. Factoring in some updated pension figures and police officers’ previously negotiated raise that took effect this month, the proposal would add $98 million per year to the city’s $2.5 billion general fund budget, according to the city finance department.

The cost will climb higher, Finance Director Tantri Emo added, if the police union’s ongoing contract talks result in additional raises; the union’s current deal ends in December.

Police have negotiated pay raises of roughly 30 percent between 2008 and 2019, while firefighters have received raises totaling about 13 percent — with just a 3 percent raise since 2011, while taking deep cuts to their pension benefits. The union declared an impasse with the Turner administration and sued the city over its contract last year. That case is pending.

Emo said the parity proposal would give firefighters, on average, a 25 percent raise. Firefighters could have secured 13.5 percent higher salaries, she noted, had they not voted down a 4 percent offer under former mayor Annise Parker or walked away from a 9.5 percent offer from Turner. Lancton disputes the validity of the latter point, saying the offer was made in bad faith after talks had broken down.

Peña said his first responders deserve a raise and acknowledged “we’re lagging a little bit” compared to similar-sized departments.

Still, the chief said, by targeting only staff raises and not the department’s operational needs — its aging fleet and facilities, its meager training budget, its insufficient number of ambulances — the proposal risks busting HFD’s budget without improving its performance. Asked how he would accommodate the cost without growing his $503 million budget, Peña said job cuts would be inevitable, noting that 91 percent of the department’s costs are personnel.

“When you’re asking me to absorb 20 percent, that’s personnel and there’s no hiding that. That’s services,” he said.

The discussion also featured fiery testimony from Houston Police Officers’ Union president Joe Gamaldi, who said his members support a pay raise for firefighters but vehemently oppose parity, which he said has been “an albatross” for police departments in other cities.

“Our job functions are completely different,” he said. “Yes, we are all first responders. Yes, we all take very serious risks to protect our community. But asking for pay parity simply because we’re both first responders is like me saying, ‘Well, I want pay parity with city attorney Ron Lewis because our officers handle legal issues all the time.’”

Gamaldi said firefighters pushing the issue talk of fairness, but he said the parity proposal would not require that police pay match firefighters’ pay if the fire union edged ahead, nor would it align the two groups’ pensions benefits. Firefighters hired between 2004 and 2017 were afforded much more generous pensions than police hired during that time.

While some at Thursday’s committee hearing called the discussion premature, much of the talk focused on the potential cost of the measure.

“I don’t hear anyone denying that it would add a very serious financial burden to the city that’s unfunded,” District H Councilwoman Karla Cisneros said. “What the consequences of that would be no one here is comfortable with. We need to get more money to our firefighters. This does not seem to be the best way to do it.”

District I Councilman Robert Gallegos expressed concern about the financial impact across city departments.

“I want to make sure our library hours will not be cut back, I want to make sure the swimming pool hours will not be cut back, I want to make sure BARC is out there picking up stray dogs, I want to make sure Solid Waste is picking up the trash on time and I want to make sure HPD doesn’t cut any of the five cadet classes that are in our budget this year,” he said.

Copyright 2018 Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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