Battle over Houston firefighter pay intensifies

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - In less than three weeks, Houston voters will be asked to decide on one of the most contentious political battles in the city's history. The issue involves whether Houston firefighters' pay should be on par with Houston police officers; otherwise known as pay parity.

The issue is not novel in Houston. In 1975, the city passed an ordinance calling for pay parity after police officers and firefighters pushed for the measure.

However, in 2001, then Mayor Lee Brown repealed the measure. Three years later, firefighters convinced voters to grant them the ability to negotiate with the city under what is known as collective bargaining. This type of negotiation comes with strict, state-mandated rules and timelines.

In the more-than decade since that victory, firefighters have said they've seen their pay lag behind other similar-sized departments, along with working conditions, benefits and pensions eroded. The current political battle has been marked by, at times, coarse rhetoric and dire financial predictions.

"Public safety has to be the No. 1 priority within the city of Houston," said Patrick Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. "I believe the city of Houston has to make the brave men and women, who go out there and put their lives on the line every day, a priority."

After current contract negotiations reached an impasse, firefighters garnered the signatures needed to get what is known as Proposition B on the November ballot. If passed, Proposition B would force the city to raise firefighter pay to level of police officer pay.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said if Prop B passes, the city would have to find nearly $100 million in the budget to fund the pay increase. The city controller estimates the cost around $85 million.

Either way, Turner said it would mean hundreds of employee layoffs and other cuts.

"You're talking about trying to absorb $100 million and, initially, we will look to the fire department to absorb the $100 million as much as possible," Turner said.

Turner said he has already asked city departments to prepare plans to make these cuts if Proposition B passes.

"It's like a storm. When you see a storm coming, you have to start making preparations," Turner said.

Lancton has routinely dismissed Turner's predictions as nothing more than scare tactics. Lancton has also challenged the city's estimates, saying the numbers have changed and "do not add up." Lancton also balked at the city's grim prediction, citing that it recently gave police officers a 7 percent raise over two years. However, when asked what the union believes will be the cost of pay parity, Lancton refers back to the city for answer.

"This is nothing more than the mayor being politically vindictive. The Houston firefighters have played by the rules," Lancton said.

Turner is not alone in sounding the alarm.

"The only way the city is going to be able to pay for this is to lay off firefighters and to lay off police officers," said Joe Gamaldi, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union.

HPOU and Police Chief Art Acevedo have spoken out against Proposition B, as has Fire Chief Sam Pena, all saying if Proposition B passes, the cuts will be deep. The police union even sunk its own money into this fight. The most-recent campaign finance reports for the Protect Houston Political Action Committee, which is anti-Proposition B, lists only two contributors. Turner donated $25,537 of in-kind contributions for "radio advertisement and production." The reports show $35,000 from HPOU.

"We also have our own PAC that we've been spending money on, several hundred thousand dollars on commercials, both radio and TV," Gamaldi said. "The people of this city need to be educated on what Proposition B really is."

Gamaldi warns if police officers are laid off, it will lead to increased response times to call for help.

Lancton argues the union tried to reach an agreement over pay last year, but Turner and the city wouldn't negotiate in good faith.

"The mayor didn't show to one day, one day of contract negotiations," Lancton said. "What Proposition B will do is take away the politics from public safety."

Turner fired back against that accusation via a written statement sent to KPRC2:

“The same negotiating process used for police and municipal employees contract negotiations was used with fire. The city successfully reached agreements with municipal employees for a 6% pay raise over three years and police 7% over two years.  

“The city offered Firefighters a 9.5% pay raise over 3 years which is still on the table. They are asking voters to mandate a pay raise in the first year of 29% costing more than $100 million and forcing significant layoffs.  

“The City of Houston Controller calls Proposition B unsustainable and the Greater Houston Partnership, the business chamber, is adamantly opposed."

Turner further released a timeline of negotiations:

"On or about April 20, 2016, HPFFA and the city began negotiations for a successor agreement anew. HPFFA requested a 20 percent pay increase over three years, 8 percent in 2016, 6 percent in 2017, and 6 percent in 2018. In August 2016, the parties agreed to amend the 2011-2014 agreement to extend the evergreen period until June 30, 2017. Negotiations for a successor agreement began again on or about March 14, 2017. HPFFA proposed a 20 percent pay increase over three years, 8 percent in 2018, 6 percent in 2019, and 6 percent in 2020. The city made a counter proposal for a 4 percent pay increase over two years, 2 percent in 2018 and 2 percent in 2019. HPFFA declared impasse and requested arbitration on May 15, 2017. The city did not accept HPFFA's request for arbitration because the parties had not made every reasonable effort to reach an agreement on compensation and any other issues in dispute.

"Instead, the city requested that the negotiation period be extended by 15 days and that the parties pursue mediation. The parties entered mediation on June 22, 2017. In mediation, the city offered a 9.5 percent pay increase over three years, 3.5 percent in 2018, 3 percent in 2019 and 3 percent in 2020. HPFFA rejected the offer. HPFFA filed impasse lawsuit pursuant to and as required by the Texas Local Government Code § 174.252 on June 28, 2017. On March 2, 2018, HPFFA sent a request to begin new negotiations for a successor agreement. The city responded by asking HPFFA for dates to start negotiations. HPFFA never responded back to the city's invitation to discuss scheduling. To this date, no bargaining sessions have been held."

After receiving this response Lancton sent the following written statement to KPRC: "The mayor refuses to tell the truth about the games it played during the city's failed negotiations with firefighters. His team, which had no authority to reach a deal with us, wasted months of time. All of his so-called 'offers' included massive concessions -- even after the negotiations failed. In other words, he wanted firefighters to fund these so-called 'raises.' Negotiating over Twitter is not a real negotiation. The real question is why the mayor won't disclose the hundreds of millions spent on police raises since 2011 -- all without phony budget crises and layoff threats. The mayor's vindictive obsession with punishing firefighters and their families raises some very troubling questions about his leadership."

KPRC also spoke with former Mayor Annise Parker regarding the 4 percent pay raise offer mentioned in Turner's statement. Parker said the union rejected the offer.

"They told me that they wouldn't come back to the negotiating table, they thought they could get a better deal with the new mayor," Parker said. "When they say they've been operating without a contract, that was their choice."

Parker said stalled negotiations are why the fire department's pay has fallen behind other similarly sized departments.

Lancton disputes this, too, saying firefighters countered with an offer of a 2 percent pay raise in exchange for the restoration of previously cut benefits he said were promised. Following our interview with Parker, Lancton also provided KPRC with a statement from former city attorney David Feldman, "After the firefighters rank and file rejected the 4 percent raise over two years where the lack of restoration of certain benefit cuts were at issue, the firefighters came back to the table and attempted to negotiate a 2 percent pay raise over two years with the benefits restored. The city rejected that offer."

This issue has even spilled in the courts. After reaching an impasse, the union filed a petition asking for the court to settle the matter of what wage fire fighters should earn.

"The only other remedy within state law is to go to a district court and ask a judge and jury to determine your prevailing wage," Lancton said.

The city has filed a motion to dismiss the claim and is asking the court to determine the constitutionality of the union’s collective bargaining rights. Read the petition here.

A hearing on this issue is scheduled for Oct. 22.

Copyright 2018 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.