Houston fire union withdraws, then rejoins 'pay parity' debate
The union said they were concerned that the debate’s host may be giving Mayor Sylvester Turner too much control over the event
By Mike Morris
HOUSTON — Houston's firefighters union on Wednesday withdrew and then reinstated its participation in a Saturday debate with Mayor Sylvester Turner on the "pay parity" referendum that goes before voters in November, amid concerns that the event's host, the Harris County Democratic Party, may be giving the mayor too much control over the event.
The hour-long forum, which the party will live stream from St. John's United Methodist Church at 2019 Crawford beginning at 10 a.m., will mark the first time the mayor and the union address the contentious issue on the same stage.
If approved by voters, the measure would require the city to pay firefighters the same as it pays police of corresponding rank and seniority.
One day after it was announced the firefighters union and the mayor would participate, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton announced the union had withdrawn from the forum, saying "party insiders failed to stop the manipulation of the ground rules to advantage the mayor."
Several hours later, Lancton reverse his position, saying "a variety of miscommunications" had been overcome.
"We thank the HCDP for further clarifying the ground rules of the Prop B debate. Fairness of the debate and the inclusion of the precinct chairs in this process are priorities for us," he said. "Firefighters appreciate the opportunity to debate the Prop B issue."
Among the union's initial complaints were that Houston Chronicle opinion editor Lisa Falkenberg was to serve as moderator (the editorial board expressed opposition to the parity proposal in July 2017, though Falkenberg noted her tenure began 11 months after that), and that Democratic Party officials did not agree to let Lancton address precinct chairs or let them vote on whether to endorse the proposition.
County Democratic Party Chair Lillie Schechter had said she respected the union's intial decision to withdraw despite "extensive conversations" about the format of the discussion, noting that the gathering never was envisioned as ending in a vote; such tallies only occur at quarterly gatherings of all precinct chairs, she said, the last of which was held Sept. 13.
"I applaud the HPFFA for its steadfast representation of firefighters and am glad we were able to clarify things sufficiently to regain their participation Saturday," she said. "We look forward to an informative session that will educate voters on this important November issue."
Turner, speaking at midday when the firefighters appeared unlikely to participate in the event, said the union has been unable to negotiate with former mayor Annise Parker, him, or, now, with local Democrats.
"When it comes to getting out the information, the union, it's not a strong advocate of providing the information," he said. "They do want this to be a popularity contest. Because, if it's a popularity contest — everybody supports the firefighters. And I support the firefighters. It's not about that. It's about, what is the city's ability to pay?"
The mayor's office declined further comment late Wednesday after the union announced it would participate after all.
Turner argues the city cannot afford the parity measure, which he says would cost $98 million a year and force nearly 1,000 worker layoffs, including firefighters and police. City Controller Chris Brown this week estimated the parity measure would cost less — about $85 million a year — but called the move "unsustainable" and agreed layoffs likely would result.
Neither figure includes the additional cost that would be added to the fire budget with the 7 percent raises the city council agreed to give police officers in a new two-year contract approved Wednesday. The agreement means police will have received raises totaling 37 percent since 2011, while firefighters have received just a 3 percent raise.
The fire union says finding the money to cover the parity proposal is a matter of priorities, saying the police raises occurred without city leaders declaring a budget crisis. The firefighters argue Turner's threat of layoffs is a scare tactic to turn voters against the measure.
Turner has said the police raises will cost a cumulative $52.7 million over the two-year deal. Approval of the parity measure, listed on the ballot as Proposition B, would add another $41.5 million in raises for firefighters over the same period. Brown's estimates of those additional costs are similar.
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