Politics

Houston City Council Approves 18% Salary Increase For Firefighters

Despite the federal dollars, the years-long battle between Mayor Sylvester Turner and the firefighters union over pay may not be over yet.

Proposition B - Firefighter Pay Parity Graphic

City council voted unanimously Wednesday to give Houston firefighters a minimum 18% pay increase over three years, as the city’s fire union expressed concern that the move undermined collective bargaining efforts.

The ordinance would incrementally raise pay over the next three years. The first 6% bump is set to occur on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

The increase will cost the city $115.3 million, bringing firefighter starting salaries up from $43,528 to more than $51,000 in 2023.

Turner announced the plan in May, attributing the pay increase to federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law by President Biden earlier this year.

At Wednesday's council meeting, Turner asked the union to call off a 2017 lawsuit against the city, which invoked a provision of state law that allows a state district judge to set firefighter salaries.

"Are they going to pull down their lawsuits? Because the primary issue was on pay,” he said. “So what's the purpose for the lawsuits? And what's the purpose for asking people to sign petitions for binding arbitration, which can hurt the city?"

However, the pay increase was criticized by Houston Professional Fire Fighters' Association President Marty Lancton, who previously called the increase a “bonus,” since the three-year ordinance was paid for with stimulus money.

"Let there be no misunderstanding, these are not permanent raises. They are temporary bonuses funded with temporary dollars provided through the American Rescue Plan Act," read a statement from Lancton. "While grateful for the money from the federal government, Houston firefighters and their families want, need and deserve the security that comes with a binding labor contract."

The fire union has been locked in a years-long legal battle with the city of Houston in an attempt to get a permanent pay increase through a collective bargaining contract with the city.

After a panel of justices ruled in favor of the union in May, attorneys for the city filed an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court last Monday.

In a statement, Lancton wrote that the union still wants to pass a charter amendment that would require the city to reach the binding agreement.

“Our proposed city charter amendment requiring binding arbitration using an independent third party is a fair and cost-effective way to end this four-year war against us,” Lancton wrote.

The union says it's approaching the 20,000 signatures needed to place the measure on the ballot come November.

Last year, San Antonio resolved a six-year stalemate between the city and San Antonio firefighters union, after voters in 2018 approved a city charter amendment requiring mandatory arbitration.

Fire Chief Samuel Peña told reporters Wednesday that he supported the pay raise, and that he believed the increase would make the position more competitive when compared to other departments in the region.

“Firefighters have been doing an outstanding job through some challenging times,” he said. “This is something that needs to happen — this is the right thing to do.”

Additional reporting by Lucio Vasquez.

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Jen Rice

Reporter

Jen Rice is the City Hall reporter at Houston Public Media, where she covers topics like Houston City Council and housing. Jen was born and raised in Houston's 100-year floodplain. She graduated from Barnard College at Columbia University and has a master's degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs...

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