HOUSTON – A measure that could result in hundreds of firefighters losing their jobs was approved Wednesday by the Houston City Council.
"Today was a very hard vote, and it was deserving of all of the discussion," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
The measure, which passed 10-6, aimed to give Turner the authority to lay off 220 firefighters.
Turner argued that the layoffs are necessary to implement Proposition B and keep the city's budget balanced on time.
"No one knows what's going to happen on Monday, the mediation, no one knows. But I will say to you, we have to move forward with this particular item," Turner said.
If firefighters are not laid off, the mayor said, the city would have to find cuts in the budget for city workers who would need to be notified of the lay off 60 days before July 1.
Approved by voters in November, Prop B requires the city's firefighters be paid the same as their Police Department counterparts.
Some council members wanted to delay Wednesday's vote until mediation between city leaders and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, the union that represents the city's firefighters, over the implementation of Prop B are completed. The first of those mediation sessions took place Monday and Tuesday. A third session is scheduled for next week.
Councilman Mike Knox called the vote premature and had accused the mayor of strong-arming.
"In one situation, in the mediation they reach an agreement and there are no layoffs, so we don't have to take that vote. Another scenario is they don't reach an agreement, and the court orders that the state law prevails over the city ordinance, the city ordinance is now moot or invalid, in which case we don't have to lay off any employees. If the judge rules in favor of the firefighters and against the city, then we would have to consider layoffs," Knox said. "Two of the three options we don't have to consider layoffs."
Other council members worried that the move would hinder the ability to mediate in good faith.
"The mediation now will be tainted by this vote because we've now given these firefighters notice that we're laying them off," Councilman Michael Kubosh said.
Ten of 16 council members voted yes. Several cited reasons the need to be responsible with the upcoming city budget and timeline.
"It must be implemented in a responsible way and certainly not at the expense of municipal employees," Councilman Robert Gallegos said. "On Monday we heard from two municipal employees...a public senior dentist who had tears in her eyes, and she was crying in regards to knowing 12 employees under her have already been impacted with the 47 municipal employee layoffs."
"The cost for next year is right at $80 million, and the budget has to balance," Turner said. "It has to balance. We don't have a choice, and so we do have the plan going forward that does require the 60-day notices that have been given to the 67 cadets. They have gotten their notice slips. The 47 notice slips to municipal employees--they have gotten their notice slips for 60 days. We're eliminating 67 different positions."
Marty Lancton, president of the firefighters association, lambasted the move. He issued the following statement:
“In one of the most reckless political stunts in Houston history, the Houston City Council has gutlessly
voted, 10-6, with Mayor Sylvester Turner to lay off hundreds of firefighters. We are grateful to Council
Members Boykins, Laster, Knox, Kubosh, Le, and Stardig for their courageous resistance against the
political pressure of the mayor. The other City Council members that voted with the mayor are more focused on protecting their pet projects and political cronies than on protecting citizens. Having manufactured a city fiscal crisis in a tantrum of Proposition B, the mayor has become an out-of-control, unaccountable political fraud. His failed leadership and relentless political and legal attacks on firefighter families will now put the communities we serve at risk. From his Prop B lies to the phony fiscal crisis and city hiring ‘freeze,’ during which he hired hundreds of police and municipal employees, Sylvester Turner’s legacy will be spending secretly hundreds of millions of dollars on his pay-to-play political cronies, friends and family while ignoring his most basic responsibilities as mayor. Contrary to what the mayor and fire chief say, reduced fire and EMS coverage will endanger Houstonians. Now, we also will lose hundreds of taxpayer-funded, HFD-trained firefighters. Third-rate politicians are destroying our world-class fire department. Our association is now focused on helping firefighter families that will be affected by the mayor’s vindictive layoffs and on raising awareness of the public safety risks imposed upon Houston by the mayor’s complicit city council members. We will help community leaders hold them accountable for their failed leadership.”