Houston mayor, fire union negotiate on Prop B but are mum on details
A state district judge ordered the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and Mayor Sylvester Turner to enter mediation over the implementation of the measure
HOUSTON — For what seemed like the first time in months, Houston officials on Monday had little to say about Proposition B.
Earlier in the day, a state district judge ordered the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and Mayor Sylvester Turner to enter mediation over the implementation of the measure, bringing back to the negotiating table two parties who have not normally hesitated to air grievances and lob accusations amid their public feud.
The parties last week agreed agreed to allow Dave Matthiesen to mediate the talks, and on Monday morning they were ordered to continue meeting until a settlement is reached or Matthiesen declares there to be an impasse.
"We'll take it one step at a time," Turner briefly told reporters after more than three hours of negotiations at Matthiesen's Montrose law office.
Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena was almost quiet: "I'm encouraged by the conversations," he said as he left the office.
At the core of the issue is the time frame for the implementation of Prop B, an amendment to the city's charter passed last November that gives Houston firefighters equal pay to police officers of the same corresponding rank and experience. Turner has repeatedly said that, unless the union agrees to a 5-year phase-in, hundreds of firefighters and city employees will receive pink slips to cover what the mayor estimates is the raise's annual, $80 million in costs.
The union meanwhile has agreed to a 3.5-year phase-in, provided that the city agrees no firefighters will be laid off. HPFFA officials have also requested financial data from the city that details the costs of Prop B, and questioned Turner's claims that such a time frame would still necessitate staff reductions.
Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, declined comment after the meeting, citing a confidentiality agreement. Earlier in the day, he framed the mediation as a positive step forward, but also questioned Turner's willingness to negotiate.
"Last week, he was against mediation," Lancton said. "Now, after the court order, he's for it. So far, the mayor has avoided working with us for two years, offering every excuse imaginable for not resolving our differences."
Turner and the union are expected to meet again Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Houston City Council is scheduled to vote on whether to reduce 220 positions at the Houston Fire Department to pay for Prop B.
Turner spokeswoman Mary Benton said the mayor does not plan to pull that vote from the council's agenda because the city must approve a balanced budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. However, she said, council could reverse itself if a deal is struck through mediation.
"What (Council) cannot do is stand still, because the process of implementation has to move forward absent any phase-in agreement," she said.
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