Houston mayor meets with firefighters to negotiate pay parity implementation
Mayor Sylvester Turner offered to negotiate a way to implement the raises over time, which he said would cost an additional $100 million a year
By Jasper Scherer
HOUSTON — For the first time since the November election, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday sat down with the head of the firefighters union and said he is willing to negotiate a plan to phase in raises mandated by the voter-approved charter amendment that requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of equal rank and seniority.
Seated across a wide conference room table from Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton, Turner said, "We are not the federal government. We cannot engage in deficit spending. Our books must balance at the end of the fiscal year. And so, if you all are willing to work with me, as the mayor of the city of Houston, to spread the cost of Proposition B out over an extended period of time, then I am more than willing to sit down and work with you ... to work out the details."
The offer to negotiate a way to implement the raises over time rather than being forced to implement the full raises — which Turner has said would cost the city an additional $100 million a year — was a sharp turnaround for the mayor.
For months leading up to the election, Lancton had said the union did not expect to receive raises overnight. He repeated the point after voters approved the pay parity measure on Nov. 6, calling for Turner to negotiate a new contract with the firefighters to supersede the charter amendment. Turner repeatedly rejected the idea, saying it was up to a judge to determine whether that would be legal.
On Wednesday, however, it was Lancton and union attorney Troy Blakeney who would not commit to implementing Proposition B over a matter of time, suggesting Turner was asking them to agree to something that was too vague. Blakeney also indicated that serious contract negotiations should take place behind closed doors, not in front of TV cameras.
Instead, both sides appeared to lay the groundwork for future discussions. Early in the meeting, Blakeney affirmed the union’s desire to meet with Turner and his administration to “develop something that might work,” he said.
"If the city wants to move forward, either through mediation or either through collective bargaining, then I would recommend we do so,” Blakeney told Turner. “We didn't come today to do anything but listen. It is your job as mayor, and Chief (Samuel) Peña's job as fire chief, to put together a proposal and submit it to us. It's not our job to tell you how to run the city or the fire department.”
In addition to leaving opening the door to negotiation, Wednesday’s meeting appeared, for the day at least, to lower the temperature of the debate. Throughout the fire union’s campaign for Prop B, Lancton and his rank and file colleagues repeatedly blasted Turner, calling him vindictive and dishonest in his dealings with firefighters.
The union’s relationship with Turner cratered during his first year in office, which the mayor spent pushing through a pension reform package that will cut future benefits from retirees, including firefighters.
It only worsened when contract negotiations between the two sides fell apart and the fire union sued the city. The Prop B referendum pushed the two sides even further apart.
Turner spent months actively campaigning against the measure, arguing it would amount to a 25 percent raise for firefighters and cost $100 million more a year. The city, he said repeatedly, would be forced to lay off as many as 1,000 employees, including hundreds of firefighters if the charter amendment passed. Lancton and the union accused him of using scare tactics and said layoffs would not be needed.
After the election, the Houston Police Officers’ Union obtained a temporary restraining order on the charter amendment, but a state district judge later threw out the order and denied a further attempt by the city to block Proposition B. Turner then said his administration would begin to implement the raises, though he said it would take months to do so.
The fire union sought a court order Tuesday aiming to force the city to begin giving out the pay raises, which Lancton said was necessary because Turner had yet to give a firm date by which the city would abide by the voter-backed amendment.
For much of the meeting Wednesday, Turner and Blakeney hit on familiar points. From the mayor’s perspective, Proposition B came without a funding source, leaving the city in $100 million hole, on top of an ongoing budget shortfall of at least $92 million in each of the next five years. To the firefighters, voters made a clear decision in November, passing Prop B by 18 percentage points, and the city should begin mailing out larger paychecks to the already under-compensated firefighters.
Left unanswered were numerous core questions that will define any upcoming negotiations. Turner has not said how long he wants to spread out the pay raises, for instance. Also unclear was the impact of the firefighters’ legal request Tuesday for a court order forcing the city to begin paying the firefighters more. The meeting finished on a positive note, but neither side moved to set dates for negotiations or settled the method by which the city and union will attempt to hammer out a new contract.
"The reality is, you have nearly 300,000 voters that supported not only Proposition B, but the firefighters, and since that time there has been no substantive discussion or dialogue about implementation or any other path,” Lancton said after the meeting. “Our position has always been there are two ways to move forward: One is to follow the law and implement Proposition B. The other one was to implement through a contract. That hasn’t changed.”
Ultimately, the meeting appeared to be the start of a protracted negotiation process, though neither side would commit to much of anything Wednesday.
“It's obviously a start of something,” Blakeney said. “Maybe the start and finish on the same day. But it's certainly a start.”