Updated 10:02 p.m. CT
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday proposed an 18% increase for the city's firefighters over the next three fiscal years, the latest development amid an ongoing legal battle between the firefighters union and the mayor since the union's contract expired in 2017.
The cost over that period would be $115.3 million. Firefighter starting salaries would also go from $43,528 to more than $51,000 in that time.
Turner attributed the pay increase to federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law by President Biden earlier this year.
"We do have an opportunity to use some of these dollars to provide pay raises to our firefighters,” Turner said. “I've always said and believed that Houston firefighters work very hard at protecting our community and deserve a pay raise that the city can afford."
The increase would begin to take effect during the department’s first pay period in July.
Under the plan, firefighters would receive a 6% increase in fiscal year 2022, a second 6% increase in fiscal year 2023, and another 6% increase in fiscal year 2024.
The last time firefighters accepted a pay increase was in 2014 — a 3% raise, Turner said.
The mayor and city council are currently planning the city budget for fiscal year 2022, which they're expected to approve on June 2. Unlike past years, the mayor doesn't have a budget shortfall to fix: Though the city lost an estimated $178 million in revenue during the pandemic — much of it coming from decreased sales tax revenue — the city will receive $615 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act over two years, which is expected to plug this year's gaps.
Turner said the budget proposal doesn't necessitate any layoffs, which he attributed to the ARPA funding.
Asked by a reporter why he was offering the pay raise without it being agreed upon in a collective bargaining agreement with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, Turner replied, “because I can do that.”
“There is no question firefighters deserve a pay raise and I'm not going to go through the minutiae of trying to appease personalities,” Turner said. “The firefighters deserve a pay raise. They have families, they have obligations. Because of the federal dollars that we are receiving, we have dollars available where we can do that right now. And so instead of waiting any further, any longer, we're going to do that."
HPFFA President Marty Lancton said the union was appreciative of the money, but added that the union position is that the money was a “bonus,” not a pay raise.
“Firefighters appreciate any bonus that is given to them. They’ve been on the frontlines of this pandemic,” Lancton said. “But this absolutely does not address the legal rights of Houston firefighters and the contract that they’re owed, and we certainly hope that the mayor will come back now to the table and settle the outstanding issues that are at an impasse.”
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The process, Lancton said, is clearly defined: any pay raise must come through collective bargaining, and the union, “does not have the legal authority to accept or reject any pay from the city, other than that through the collective bargaining process that has clearly been outlined by the courts.”
In 2018, Houston voters approved Proposition B to create pay parity for firefighters and police officers. The Houston Police Officers Union opposed the measure. Weeks after a state district judge ruled in May 2019 that the proposition was “unconstitutional and void in its entirety,” mediation between the city and the firefighters union ended in an impasse.
Turner's administration has fought the union in court for four years, seeking to stop collective bargaining.
Earlier this month, a state appeals court sided with the union, ruling that firefighters have the right to negotiate pay and contracts under state law.
In a statement, Houston City Attorney Arturo Michel said the city disagreed with the court's opinion.
"The City is evaluating its options and will decide in due time whether to ask the Texas Supreme Court to address this matter or present evidence to the trial court in support of just, fair, and affordable compensation to Houston's Fire Fighters," Michel said.
A bipartisan bill at the Texas legislature this session, HB 2087, would have required the city of Houston to negotiate with the firefighters through mandatory arbitration. City officials testified against it, including Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña, and the bill is unlikely to advance this year after the House failed to vote on it by a May 13 deadline.
In his testimony, Peña said that the department is hemorrhaging firefighters due to low wages because the union has continued to reject the city's offers.
Ray Hunt, executive director of the Houston Police Officers Union, also testified against the bill, arguing that it would cause a ripple effect in the city — if firefighters won the salary increase the union is demanding, then the city would likely cancel police cadet classes to pay for that raise.
State Rep. Mary Ann Perez, D-Houston, a co-author of the bill, pointed out that the city of San Antonio has the same mandatory arbitration policy already in effect. Perez's son is a Houston firefighter.
Last year, San Antonio resolved a six-year stalemate between the city and the firefighters union, after voters in 2018 approved a city charter amendment requiring that mandatory arbitration.