Firefighter layoffs

Hoo boy.

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to lay off up to 400 firefighters as he prepares to award pay raises required by Proposition B, the voter-approved charter amendment that grants firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank, according to five Houston City Council members who were briefed on the plan Thursday.

The apparent move to fully implement the pay parity measure comes after talks between the city and fire union about phasing in the raises over five or more years became strained last week. Meanwhile, city officials are preparing council members for the difficult task of closing a $197 million deficit in the annual budget that must be adopted for the upcoming July 1 fiscal year. About $80 million of that budget gap comes from the firefighters’ raises, council members were told.

In addition to the firefighter layoffs, Turner will seek to close the deficit by asking all city departments to cut their budgets by at least 3 percent, a move that is likely to require layoffs of, perhaps, 100 municipal workers, the council members said. Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said she was told no police officers will be laid off.

On May 9, Turner’s administration plans to issue back pay to firefighters retroactive to Jan. 1, which will total about $30 million, multiple council members said.

“So, basically, on May 9 you want to be hanging out near a firefighter because he’s going to be buying,” said Councilman Greg Travis. “He’s going to have a lot of money on that day.”

The city plans to mail layoff notices to firefighters within weeks, Travis said. Among the layoffs are 68 fire cadets who Turner has declined to promote amid a citywide hiring freeze than has spanned more than five months. The mayor nonetheless promoted more than 60 police cadets Monday.

The fire cadets filed grievances against Turner Thursday alleging that the mayor was discriminating and retaliating against them.


Turner, who repeatedly has warned of potential layoffs, told reporters his hands were tied because the charter amendment did not come with a funding mechanism. He also said the fire union rejected a city proposal to phase in pay raises. That offer did not appear to fully implement the charter amendment over the city’s proposed five-year window, falling short of increases in incentive pay that the finance department projects would be necessary to reach full parity.

“People want to put the administration in a box,” Turner said. “If you don’t implement Prop. B, people criticize you for not implementing Proposition B. When we move to implement Prop. B, people say, ‘We don’t want the layoffs.’ Well, you can’t have it both ways.”

During negotiations, the firefighters proposed to phase in Prop. B raises over three years, retroactive to July 1, 2018. The raises then would be distributed based on firefighters’ length of service, with all members reaching full parity by July 1, 2020.

No one can say they didn’t see this coming. One of the main arguments against Prop B was the cost, which would inevitably lead to layoffs because the vast majority of the city’s expenditures are personnel costs. It seems a little crazy that there wasn’t a way to agree to a phase in to avoid any drastic actions, but here we are. Note that the city has very limited capacity to raise revenues thanks to the stupid and harmful revenue cap, and the city is not allowed to run a deficit. That severely restricts options, and that’s the place we are in now. We’ve been through this before, back in 2010 when then-Mayor Parker faced a huge deficit caused by the downturn in the economy. She wound up laying off hundred of municipal employees. Police and firefighters were exempted from that, but this time it’s the firefighter pay parity referendum that is driving a big part of the deficit. Where should the cuts come from this time? You tell me.

One uncertainty appeared to stem from differences in educational requirements between the departments. For example, police officers must have a master’s degree to be promoted to assistant police chief, a stipulation that does not exist for assistant fire chiefs and fire marshals. Some firefighters may receive reduced raises due to the differing requirements, multiple council members said, explaining why the latest cost estimate of $80 million falls more than $30 million below Turner’s previous estimate.

There is speculation this will lead to a lawsuit. I’ve expected that from the beginning. And I fully expect it will still be litigated the next time the Mayor is on the ballot in 2023.

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11 Responses to Firefighter layoffs

  1. Manny Barrera says:

    The fire fighters got screwed on the pension. They had not taken pay raises similar to what the police did, in lieu of maintaining a funded pension plan. They were willing to sacrifice today to make sure they would be able to maintain a secure retirement. They lost 1.5 Billion in their pension when the Turner got the State to change the pension plan.

    There are numerous ways of looking at what happened, one is that if the Municipal and Police had forgone pay raised and kept a properly funded pension that the City would not have been in trouble in regards to the pension.

    The way I see it the party that was fiscally responsible is being screwed, that would be the firemen and women.

  2. Marc says:

    Kuff, I am a retired HFD. Much of this does arise from the fact firefighters took pension benefits over increases in pay back in 2010 and before. And then last legislative session we took a hard hit when the city and the other poorly run pensions essentially stole our money to prop up their prior choices to take the pay. So as a retired, I took a hit that will likely cost me $250k over the rest of my life, and will delay/decrease the retirements of many of the younger members. Am I angry? You bet. You wonder why firefighters, who naturally should be more amenable to a Democratic Mayor, are likely going to support one of the two bad Republicans runnining on 2019? A series of screwings from Democratic mayors will do that.

  3. David Fagan says:

    “People want to put the administration in a box,” Turner said, sucks don’t it Mr. Turner?

  4. C.L. says:

    Kuff, re: “…Note that the city has very limited capacity to raise revenues thanks to the stupid and harmful revenue cap, and the city is not allowed to run a deficit.”

    Confused. How/why is the inability to operate your business in the red a bad thing ? What’s the problem with only being able to spend what you bring in ?

    A serious question…

  5. Flypusher says:

    Not being in Houston anymore, I haven’t paid attention to the details of PropB, so someone can correct me if the following impression is wrong. That impression is that the measure was all “firefighters are awesome, and we should pay them more!”, but severely lacking in “this is how we’re going to get the revenue to fund those pay increases.”

    There will be bond measures (funding useful/ nice things) for me to vote on this May. However it’s been made explicitly clear that if the voters say yes, there will be some property tax increase to fund it. The drainage improvements will be a “yes”, haven’t decided on the others.

  6. David Fagan says:

    C.l. The city is not a business, but a municipality. What business puts a revenue cap on itself? The Mayor isn’t a CEO, he’s a public official that needs to cooperate with a City Council and has to answer to a voting public that gets no revenue, unlike stock holders of a company. Call it what it is and maybe some basic issues can be handled a little more efficiently.

  7. Ross says:

    @CL, the City is not allowed by law to spend more on general fund items than it brings in in revenue. That’s fine, running a deficit for general operations is seldom a good thing. In the normal course of events, the City would raise taxes to pay for Prop B, but there is a revenue cap(voted for by the citizens of Houston) that makes it impossible to raise enough taxes to pay for Prop B. Thus the dilemma of how many jobs to eliminate to pay for the raises for firefighters.

    @Flypusher, that is a good summary. Prop B did not say “and raise the revenue cap to pay for this super awesome raise”

  8. David Fagan says:

    GOODBYE DNC! And the $800,000 of taxpayer money it took to try to get them down here, and NOTHING to show for it. Where did THAT money come during such tying times?

  9. Bill Daniels says:


    There’s a vicious rumor going around that the firefighters petitioned DNC chairman Perez directly to ask him not to bring the convention to Houston. Any truth to that? Seriously asking.

  10. David Fagan says:

    I have no idea about that, Bill. My statements are my own opinions.

  11. David Fagan says:

    I don’t mind putting things in quotes, though “Mr. Schaitberger accused him of “an old-fashioned double cross” and “just being a jerk.”

    Houston First is like “come over to our house to play, we’ll spend a lot of taxpayer, including republicans’, money on a big party! Mayor Turner is a democrat and he lets us spend ALL THIS MONEY and he tells fire fighters the city is BROKE!”

    DNC like “Nahhhhhh, I’m going to Bobby’ s house, they got beer in Milwaukee!”.

    Speaking of beers, it’s funny to see The Chronicle cry in theirs “Firefighters gloat as Dems pick Milwaukee over Houston for 2020 convention”

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