Houston Matters

Mayor Turner On Houston Matters: Firefighter Layoffs Aren’t Punishment For Confrontation Over Pay Raises

Turner says the city must balance its finances when it implements pay parity between the police and fire departments.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (right) was interviewed by Houston Matters Host Craig Cohen (left) on March 12, 2019. Much of the interview was focused on Proposition B, the measure to implement pay parity between the fire and police departments.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told Houston Matters on Tuesday that the hundreds of potential layoffs the City would execute in order to implement pay parity between the fire and police department is not a “punitive” or “vindictive” measure against the firefighters’ union. The city is expected to cut as many as 400 firefighters, and 100 municipal employees in the coming weeks.

The pay raises, which Houstonians approved under Proposition B in last year’s election, would equate to a 29 percent pay raise for firefighters and will cost the city approximately $100 million a year.

“I’m not against firefighters,” Turner told host Craig Cohen and added: “We have to operate within our means, we have to balance our books.”

The mayor noted that Proposition B didn’t specify a revenue source to pay for the raises, and said that “it’s a matter of we have more obligations than we have revenue to pay for it and we’re trying to balance the two.” 

Turner said the firefighters will get the first raise in May, with retroactive pay to January 1, and the first six months of raises will cost around $31 million. That amount will be taken from the city’s Fund Balance, which increases the financial gap for next year. That’s why Turner’s administration says the layoffs are necessary.

The mayor also said the city’s revenue cap, which limits the annual growth of property tax revenue the city can collect, makes it more difficult for the city to fund the raises. Houston voters approved that cap in 2004 and Turner has advocated unsuccessfully to have it overturned. 

Houston has approximately 4,000 firefighters and, according to Turner, 80 percent of costs generated by the fire department are related to Emergency Medical Services (EMS).

The mayor said he’s considering trimming firefighters shifts from four to three and working to make the EMS system more efficient.

Turner also addressed a garbage fee proposal by Council Member Dwight Boykins that would cost Houstonians between $25 and $40 dollars a month and that Boykins said could provide the funding for the firefighters’ pay raises. The mayor said Houston residents would expect such a fee to be used for improving garbage collection and not for the raises.

“I don’t want to lay off anyone,” Turner said, “and that’s why I asked the firefighters, the union, to phase in Proposition B over a five-year period to avoid these layoffs.” He added the firefighters’ union rejected that offer.

The mayor also ruled out that the ongoing confrontation between him and the union may have been a factor in Houston losing the bid to host the Democratic National Committee convention in 2020. He said that DNC Chairman Tom Perez spoke with him on Monday and didn’t mention Proposition B. “Everything cannot be viewed through the eyes of Proposition B,” Turner concluded.

Houston firefighters are organizing a march on City Hall in response to the planned layoffs. Union officials say firefighters and their families will rally on March 19 to draw attention to what they call Turner’s “reckless, punitive, and fiscally dishonest” decision to cut firefighter jobs.

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