Houston to put firefighter pay parity measure on ballot

Houston voters in November will choose whether to grant firefighters pay “parity” with police of corresponding rank and seniority


By Mike Morris
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Houston voters in November will choose whether to grant firefighters pay “parity” with police of corresponding rank and seniority.

After weeks of wrangling over the issue — including angry debates, rare legislative maneuvers and allegations of electioneering — the city council voted unanimously Wednesday to place the proposal before voters Nov. 6.

Mayor Sylvester Turner initially gave council the option of scheduling the vote in November 2019 instead, but ultimately pulled that item from the agenda. Still, Turner repeated his concerns about the idea on Wednesday, saying it will cost the city $98 million a year and force layoffs.

The mayor said he intends to host a town hall meeting in each of the 11 council districts before November to educate voters on the issue.

“I don’t have a money-making machine,” Turner said. “I agree they deserve a pay raise, but the question is, what is our ability to pay?”

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton cheered the vote.

“We are grateful that the city council members were led by their conscience and their ministerial duty, and not by political arm-twisting,” Lancton said. “We look forward to this campaign to help keep the fire department strong.”

Houston firefighters gathered tens of thousands of voter signatures and submitted the petition to put the parity question to voters a year ago, but had to sue the city to force it to count the petition. They won, and the petition was validated in May.

Since then, they have stressed that state law requires council members to place the item on the ballot and that a debate on the merits of the idea should wait until that duty is fulfilled. Council members recently scheduled a rare special meeting on that point, hoping to force the Turner administration to put the item on the council agenda, but fell short of a quorum.

The firefighters sued again last month, arguing a recent city council committee hearing scheduled to discuss the budget impact of the idea was a ploy to trash their proposal in what they said amounted to illegal electioneering. A district judge last week agreed with the firefighters and said a video of the meeting should be taken off the city website; that order has been temporarily blocked on appeal.

Council discussion of the issue on Wednesday was not as lengthy as it could have been, in part because Turner pulled from the agenda an item that would have scheduled the vote in November 2019 rather than this fall.

Still, council members grappled with their desire to support firefighters and their concerns about the impact of the proposal on city services paid for, as the fire department is, out of the tax- and fee-supported general fund.

Councilman Dwight Boykins was among those who voiced support for the measure, suggesting that the city’s voter-imposed cap on property tax revenues be adjusted to help cover the cost. Boykins also floated the idea of imposing a monthly garbage fee; Houston is the only big city in Texas without one.

Turner and some other council members were, at best, reluctant to embrace those proposals.

Other council members’ concerns took various forms. Councilman Greg Travis suggested the Turner administration and the firefighters were engaged in a game of chicken in which all Houstonians would lose. Councilwoman Brenda Stardig bristled at Turner’s “threats” to cut services if the proposal passes, saying it was a breakdown in contract talks that led the firefighters to push for parity. Councilman Mike Laster, meanwhile, worried the item’s passage would have “serious unintended consequences for firefighters themselves.”

Voters in November also are expected to consider a "do-over" of ReBuild Houston, the 2010 charter amendment that created the city's program for repairing streets and drainage pipes and ditches. The Texas Supreme Court voided the original election because the ballot language did not make clear that the program envisioned a new drainage fee residents would pay.

Turner said he wanted to take another look at the ballot language on that item before asking council to formally schedule the item for a vote, and delayed it to the council’s next meeting on Aug. 15.

State law sets an Aug. 20 deadline for placing items on the November ballot.

Copyright 2018 Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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