Houston firefighters ask judge to force pay parity implementation
The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sought a court order aiming to force the city to pay firefighters the same as police officers
By Jasper Scherer
HOUSTON — The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sought a court order Tuesday aiming to force the city to pay firefighters the same as police officers of corresponding rank and seniority, one day before Mayor Sylvester Turner and the union are set to discuss ideas for implementing pay raises.
The move comes more than two months after voters approved Proposition B, a November ballot measure granting pay parity to Houston firefighters, which would amount to a massive raise that Turner says the city cannot afford. Since the election, firefighters have yet to see their paychecks grow fatter, a delay that has frustrated the union and sown confusion among city workers who face the threat of layoffs.
“By failing to give firefighters a date certain for implementation of voter-approved Proposition B, the City of Houston forced Houston firefighters” to seek Tuesday’s court order, fire union President Marty Lancton said in a statement. “With the election two months behind us, Prop B is now the law. It’s past time for Mayor Turner to respect the will of the voters.”
In response, Turner questioned why the firefighters would ask him to meet, then take court action on the eve of the meeting.
“Now that I’m willing to sit down, what do they do? They go to the courthouse,” Turner said. “Common sense has to prevail here.”
Lancton expressed skepticism that Turner is being sincere in offering to meet with the firefighters, citing the vagueness of the mayor's letter proposing the meeting. The union filed the claim Tuesday because the city's inaction forced their hand, he said.
"This is just more smoke and mirrors from a vindictive, dishonest mayor who has fought us and the voters for two years," Lancton said. "He leaves the impression that he is willing to work with us, but he refuses to actually resolve anything. He's always a victim of everybody else."
Since the election, Lancton has asked the mayor to negotiate a contract that would phase in pay parity instead of implementing it in one fell swoop. Until recently, Turner resisted the union’s calls, citing ongoing litigation while at times contending he could not negotiate what voters had already decided.
On Jan. 9, however, Turner invited firefighters to discuss ideas to implement Proposition B, though the mayor’s letter to Lancton did not say whether he is open to negotiating pay raises through contract talks.
“I do not want to lay off employees; and, I interpret some of the things you have said in public to acknowledge the true state of the City’s financial affairs,” Turner wrote to Lancton. “If the sacrifice of city services and city employees and their families in order to finance your pay increase can be avoided, I am open to consideration of your ideas.”
Lancton, responded by saying the union would not participate in “stage-managed, taxpayer-funded public ‘stakeholder’ forums.”
After filing the court order Tuesday, however, Lancton said in a statement that he and his attorney would meet with Turner to discuss implementing Prop B and settling a pending lawsuit by the city against the union.
Turner also confirmed Tuesday that he intends to meet with Lancton. For now, the city is working to define what parity means, the mayor said, which includes ironing out differences between the fire and police departments such as total employees and differing definitions of rank.
“I am moving forward to implement Proposition B, and as things currently stand, it’s going to require massive layoffs,” Turner said.
In the claim filed Tuesday in the 157th Civil District Court, the firefighters union wrote that the pay parity amendment is “indisputably the law in effect today,” yet the city has refused to commit to a date by which it will be implemented.
The process of putting the measure into effect ground to a halt in late November, when a judge blocked the charter amendment at the request of the Houston Police Officers’ Union. On Dec. 18, a state district judge tossed the temporary restraining order, appearing to clear the city to implement pay parity. The day after, Turner said his administration would do so, though he warned it would take awhile.
The mayor has repeatedly said the city cannot afford the pay hike, which he says would cost the city $100 million each year and require up to 1,000 layoffs. Lancton has brushed off the warnings as scare tactics but said he is open to phasing in firefighters’ pay raises.
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