The Houston City Council gave the all clear for issuing layoff notices to 220 firefighters last week, as leaders struggle with how to fund sweeping pay raises approved by voters in November.
What are the details?
Last fall, Houstonians passed Proposition B, a measure that requires the city’s firefighters to be compensated on the same level as police officers of corresponding rank and experience.
Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Mary Lancton argued ahead of the vote that “as city politicians found ways to increase pay for police officers by 37 percent since 2011, our pay has risen by only 3 percent in that time.”
The problem is “the cost of Proposition B is $80 to 100 million with no new funding source,” Mayor Sylvester Turner argued last week, after the City Council voted 10 to 6 in favor of handing out pink slips and demotions to cover the costs of granting the required pay hikes to the remaining 3,700 firefighters, KHOU-TV reported.
The mayor added, “We don’t want to lay off anyone.”
The firefighters’ union called the vote “one of the most reckless political stunts in Houston history.”
Turner previously warned that “Implementing Prop B for the next fiscal year starting July 1 will add another $80 million to the expected budget gap now projected to be $197 million,” KPRC-TV reported. In order to balance the budget, he says, it’s not just firefighters who have to be let go.
“Based on initial projections,” he wrote in a mid-March statement, “the city anticipates having to lay off 400 to 500 firefighters and [other] municipal employees.”
According to KTRK-TV, Fire Chief Sam Pena began delivering notices to those on the chopping block via email on Tuesday, in a letter which read, in part, “I am sorry to have to notify you that your position is being eliminated.”
But city leaders say some or all of the terminations could be rescinded if the union would allow the new pay requirements to be introduced over a period of five years, rather than over three years.
Chief Pena issued a statement after sending the layoff emails, saying, “This is the most difficult thing I have had to do in my career. … I hope we can reach an agreement with the Fire Union to phase-in the full implementation of Proposition B and avoid the layoffs.”
A fact-check conducted by the Houston Chronicle in 2018 showed that the city’s first-year firefighters receive “29 percent less than the Texas big-city average” in salary. The union has argued such disparity means the department is losing good, seasoned firefighters to other municipalities, which offer better compensation and benefits.
The Chronicle also noted, “Regardless of whether the parity measure passes, Houston’s expenses have outpaced its revenues for years.”
The city’s annual budget is $5.4 billion, $500 million of which is dedicated to the fire department.