Houston chief warns pay parity measure could cause at least 800 layoffs

Fire Chief Sam Peña warned of dire consequences — including possible layoffs of more than 800 firefighters and deferred maintenance on aging equipment

By St. John Barned-Smith
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña on Tuesday warned of dire consequences — including possible layoffs of more than 800 firefighters and deferred maintenance or upgrades on aging equipment, if voters approve the firefighters’ pay parity initiative on the November ballot.

Peña’s warning came during a City Council Committee on Budget & Fiscal Affairs meeting to provide city leaders with their first look at how the Houston Fire Department might handle the costs of the ballot measure, which proposes to raise firefighter pay to that of their police peers.

In its latest estimate, the Turner administration says approval of the referendum would cost the city $98 million in its first year and would lead to cuts at the fire department as well as in other city agencies.

“A reduction of this size in personnel cannot be accomplished without a major restructuring of the current operations,” said Tantri Emo, director of the city’s finance department. Emo said the city’s $98 million estimate million came from comparing salaries of firefighters and police at similar ranks, and said the city did not yet have estimates that might factor in costs to the city’s pension system.

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton questioned the city’s calculation on how much pay parity would actually cost taxpayers. Lancton repeated past assertions that the city refused to negotiate or work with firefighters on issues ranging from pay to operations to equipment, but he did not provide the union’s cost estimates.

Lancton again contended that city officials had actively tried to sabotage efforts to reach a new contract and to declare collective bargaining unconstitutional in Harris County.

He also sought to shoot down assertions by council members that the city had previously offered firefighters a 9.5 percent raise and accused Mayor Sylvester Turner of pitting firefighters against police officers.

The union first circulated a petition last year to put the measure before voters, but the city failed to verify the signatures until 2018 when ordered by a judge. The city secretary’s office completed the verification process in May. Then, union officials sought a court order against city officials for criticizing the proposed initiative in a public meeting, equating their comments to illegal electioneering.

“Now, the mayor manufactures a budget emergency that few even bother to scrutinize,” Lancton said, in a statement after the meeting. “It may be good political theater, but it’s vindictive and misleading.”

The sparsely attended meeting saw comment from just one other group, the fire union’s colleagues at the Houston Police Officers Union — who fired off a pointed critique of the parity initiative.

Union President Joe Gamaldi said parity in another Texas city — Dallas — had major impacts on public safety, causing a rise in response times and for officers to flee to other jurisdictions.

“This is insanity, folks,” he said. “This is simple. This is a bill the city taxpayers cannot afford.”

Chief Peña said a 25 percent across-the-board raise would boost costs and force layoffs of up to 931 firefighters — more than a full shift of the department’s 4,100 firefighters. The costs would further complicate HFD’s attempts to replace an aging fleet, upgrade stations and make other long-overdue improvements, he said.

“Now is not a time to be looking to decimate our organization,” Peña said. “Because we’re having a hard time keeping up with demand right now.”

Peña said the department would need to replace classified personnel with civilian workers in major portions of its Life Safety Bureau, as well as its Dispatch and EMS divisions, and could see response times lengthen.

Those moves would save $20 million a year, he said, but would not bridge the gap.

“We’re going to have to cut personnel,” he said. “This is reality. We get work done with people. The less firefighters I have available, the less units I can keep in service, which means it has a domino effect on our response times and our capacity.”

City council members said they strongly expect the initiative to pass and expressed alarm at the possible impact it could have on other city services.

“This is going to be disastrous for the city of Houston and disastrous for the fire department as we know it,” District E Councilman Dave Martin said. “Everyone believes firefighters deserve a pay raise, but this isn’t the way to go about it.”

Lancton — who arrived at the hearing when it was nearly over and said he was unaware he’d been added to the agenda — dismissed the specter of mass layoffs as a “scare tactic.”

Even as they raised concerns about the initiative, city leaders agreed they believed firefighters deserved a raise.

“A lot of us are convinced firefighters need better compensation,” At-Large Position 2 Councilmember David Robinson said. “But I think they need their jobs, and that’s where I’m concerned as can be. Where are we going to find the money to pay them?”

Copyright 2018 Houston Chronicle

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