Fight over Houston firefighters' pay heads to Texas Supreme Court

The city council has voted to increase funding earmarked for a law firm to continue the legal battle over pay parity between firefighters and cops


By Leila Merrill

HOUSTON — The city of Houston is taking its fight over firefighter pay to the Texas Supreme Court, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Voters approved a referendum in 2018 that requires Houston firefighters' pay be "substantially similar" to that of police officers of comparable ranks. Mayor Sylvester Turner has said that the city cannot afford to do that without laying off hundreds of firefighters.

A first-year beat cop currently makes at least $58,000 while a rookie firefighter brings home $42,000, the Chronicle reported, adding, "Both workforces are in line for pay raises in the coming years, but those adjustments won't bring parity. Both workforces are in line for pay raises in the coming years, but those adjustments won't bring parity."

Further, last week, the city council voted to increase funding earmarked for a law firm to continue the legal battle. The city lost an appeal on the matter last year.

As reported in the Chronicle:

The firm is helping city attorneys ask the state's high court to review a lower court's decision that upheld the 2018 charter amendment. Immediately after the amendment was approved in 2018, [the Houston Police Officers Union] HPOU sued the city and asked a judge to rule the measure unconstitutional. They claimed the charter amendment conflicted with state law that says firefighters should be paid similarly to comparable jobs in the private sector.

The law, known as the Fire and Police Employee Relations Act, says that it supercedes any local ordinance or rule to the contrary. Both the city's attorneys and those for HPOU argue that means the two standards for pay can't legally coexist. In Harris County's 157th district court, a series of judges issued competing rulings in favor and against the police union. Eventually, Judge Tanya Garrison issued a summary judgment in May 2019 ruling the charter amendment unconstitutional, siding with the city and HPOU. 

The fire union, which joined the suit early on to defend pay parity, appealed Garrison's judgment to the state's 14th Court of Appeals, which in July 2021 reversed Garrison's ruling and declared pay parity legal — saying that the standards can indeed coexist."

The city is now asking the Texas Supreme Court to review the case through a process called a petition for discretionary review. The city and HPOU must now file a final response to address the legal arguments raised by the fire union. That response is due March 23. 

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