What could it have cost for the firefighters?

City Controller Chris Hollins throws out some numbers and kicks up a fuss.

Chris Hollins

Houston Controller Chris Hollins faced fierce criticism from firefighters union president Marty Lancton, after estimating that equalizing past pay for Houston firefighters with their peers in other major Texas cities would cost about half of the $650 million backpay currently under consideration.

The city only has a few weeks remaining to finalize a landmark $1.5 billion settlement with the firefighters union, aimed at resolving a years-long dispute and determining the backpay owed to Houston firefighters for the past seven years that they have not had a contract. For the first few years without a contract, the firefighters received no raises, but former Mayor Sylvester Turner worked around the lack of contract and gave firefighters a three-year, 18% pay raise in 2021.

Since Mayor John Whitmire first announced the proposed settlement in March, many council members have complained about the lack of information on how the administration and the union arrived at the $650 million figure. As the city plans to issue a judgment bond to spread its cost, the backpay’s total financial impact could reach around $1 billion and affect the city budget for decades.

On Monday, Hollins outlined several scenarios of hypothetical pay raises that the city might have offered firefighters from fiscal years 2018 to 2024, the period covered by the back salary under the proposed settlement. In each case, the costs to the city would have been hundreds of millions lower than $650 million, according to the controller’s analysis.

For example, if the city had aligned Houston firefighters’ hourly pay with the average rates of firefighters in Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Dallas starting from fiscal year 2018, the cost, including interest, would have totaled approximately $380 million, he said.

Alternatively, if the city had raised Houston firefighters’ pay steadily over the past seven years to match the state average, the cost would have been around $300 million, Hollins said.

If the city had given Houston firefighters the same pay raises as Houston police officers or municipal workers during this period, the total costs would have amounted to $260 million or $110 million, respectively, he said.

“In every scenario we ran – and this should not surprise you at all – it says the firefighters are owed something,” Hollins said during a Monday public briefing. “It’s up to you all, members of City Council, to decide what’s fair and what you’ll agree to.”

Hollins also presented his analysis of the forward-looking component of the deal, which includes up to 34% pay raises for firefighters over the next five years. Assuming other major Texas fire departments continue to receive around 3% annual raises, he said, Houston’s pay will catch up to the state average by fiscal year 2026 and exceed the average by around 9% by fiscal year 2029.


He noted the list of hypotheticals he presented on Monday is not exhaustive, and his office has launched an interactive tool for the public to explore other scenarios.

Several council members attended Hollins’ briefing on Monday. Council Members Tiffany Thomas and Edward Pollard, who have been closely scrutinizing the deal, praised the controller’s efforts to disseminate key information.

“For me, it’s always about how do we get to the numbers… Did you just pull them out of thin air?” Pollard said. “Now we have much more insight and clarification on what those numbers look like here.”

Thomas said she might consider advocating for modifications to the proposed agreement or the city’s financing methods. She suggested there might be opportunities to pay down some of the financial liabilities immediately rather than financing all of it through a bond, which would incur interest and payments for decades.

“I’m not willing to put my name on anything blindly,” Thomas said. “If we are rolling out fees and taxes, there’s going to come a time where people are going to choose to live outside the city, and I think that some of those decisions will start (happening) based on what’s going to happen in our budget season coming up soon.”

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for a story over the weekend of Controller Hollins trying to arrange a meeting to discuss the settlement. We’ve had this agreement for almost two months now without knowing any of the details – Hollins is on record saying that his office has not been privy to the details, and Council is in the same boat. Politics abhors a vacuum, so of course one is going to speculate when the facts are not available. I don’t think any of what Hollins is proposing here is out of whack, but that didn’t temper the reaction.

Houston’s firefighters had sued the city for failing to reach a contract. Before the settlement, the city was facing a March 25 trial in which the law would have required a judge to compare Houston firefighter pay to that of their private-sector peers. Lancton said private-sector firefighters make 50 percent more.

“The law is very clear,” Lancton said. “What isn’t clear are the motivations of the controller to continue to politicize this issue. His facts are wrong. His scenarios are legally inapplicable.”

The controller’s analysis also failed to factor in the cost of the pension benefits and additional overtime pay that would have kicked in with higher pay, Lancton said.

“He is politicizing an issue in order to undermine Mayor Whitmire, and that is not helpful for the citizens, and it is certainly not helpful for the brave men and women who have been out all weekend rescuing citizens in floodwaters,” Lancton said.

Whitmire also took a dig at Hollins in a statement. He had analyses similar to Hollins’ available to him when he reached the deal with the firefighters, Whitmire said.

“Monday-morning quarterbacks may choose to ignore the fact that Texas law mandates firefighter pay to be based on private-sector compensation comparisons, not public sector, but as mayor and lead negotiator, I cannot ignore that fact,” Whitmire said. “It very well could have been a less costly deal to settle with the Houston Professional Firefighters Association, but that is a conversation to have with the previous administration eight years ago.”

If the law required the city to match the much higher private sector salaries, then I can see where the complaint is coming from. But we don’t know that that’s where the case would have ended up had there been no settlement. That’s been one of the complaints from Council, that we don’t know what the city’s strategy was and what options they were facing. It’s not crazy to suggest that super staunch firefighter ally Mayor John Whitmire might not have driven the hardest of bargains here.

Let’s take Whitmire and Lacton at their word and assume that 1) Mayor Turner screwed up royally by not agreeing to a contract with the firefighters earlier, 2) the city was totally going to get hammered if the lawsuit had gone to a verdict, and 3) the settlement they agreed on was in fact the very best deal the city could have hoped for under any circumstance. It’s still a big hit to the city’s finances, especially at a time when the Mayor is also promising to hire a bunch more cops. It’s a political problem for Whitmire even if you assume he’s done hero’s work. Voters might have been less enthusiastic about the promise to settle with the firefighters if they had known last year that this would be the price, even if the downside was substantial.

Whatever you think of all this, it’s on the Mayor to sell the agreement to Council and to the voters. We could have been talking about this a lot earlier than now, but we didn’t have the terms of the deal, and we still don’t have them. I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice that if Chris Hollins has his eyes on the next Mayor’s race, we now have a big difference in vision and governance to debate going forward. I don’t know if anyone still believes in “honeymoon periods” for newly elected officials, but this one appears to be over. Houston Public Media and KHOU have more.

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17 Responses to What could it have cost for the firefighters?

  1. Andrew Lynch says:

    1) Mayor Turner screwed up royally by not agreeing to a contract with the firefighters earlier.

  2. Greg Shaw says:

    Sounds like Hollins used Controller report time to argue “Turner was right all along.”
    Turner hates Whitmire and fire fighters.
    Hollins wants to be mayor and wants Turner’s backing when he runs.
    Not complicated.

  3. Meme says:

    It is a good thing that we have a Controller who is looking to protect the taxpayers.

    If it is such a great deal, Whitmire and the firefighters would not be hiding the details.

    Since the two above like to mention Q stuff, you, also David, whenever you come post my Q theory. Whitmire is working with the Republicans to bankrupt Houston so that the Trump Party can take it over.

  4. J says:

    We finally got some daylight shed on this very expensive issue. Why does Whitmire’s sweetheart deal with the firefighters cost almost twice as much? Kudos to Controller Hollins!

  5. David Fagan says:

    “But we don’t know that that’s where the case would have ended up had there been no settlement.”- this is exactly what City Legal said in his briefing, that it was in the city”s favor that the firefighters agreed to be compared to the public sector rather than the private. Look it up please.

    “assume that 1) Mayor Turner screwed up royally by not agreeing to a contract with the firefighters earlier,”- Assume? I don’t think there’s any assumption here and many people were sounding the alarm at the time, but who was listening? I think one thing that is overlooked in this whole presentation is someone from the city finally making the point, though indirectly, that the 9.5% Turner tried to propose was, indeed, bullshit. His reasoning was bullshit, and he was bullshit, but everyone wanted to make him happy, against others’ warnings.

    “But we don’t know that that’s where the case would have ended up had there been no settlement.”- You still have the chance to figure that out, just let these council members throw some Turneresque roadblocks and it’ll end up right back at March 25th, 2024. This is something city legal is warning AGAINST.

    It still amazes me that people cannot get this right, during the Turner administration people didn’t want to pay attention to fire fighters and told them “take what you can get”, “you shouldn’t be compared to police”, “no one gets a 9.5% raise”, “lets hope the court rules against fire fighters”, but when it’s time ti lay in the bed that’s been made, you don’t like that either.

    Just go ahead and let the City Council vote against this because through this entire presentation, one fact wasn’t addressed, Houston is drastically short firefighters and you needed them just this week. Who was it that called 911 and was told there was a shortage of units? You don’t know their name, but that person is important, and they are real and deserve the same services people need throughout the city.

  6. Meme says:

    Legal argues what the mayor tells them to argue.

    Those were not firefighters rescuing people out in the county.

    Let them quit, move some of the EMS over to firefighting. They will work less. Hire trained medical personnel to be on the ambulances.

  7. David Fagan says:

    Absolutely, Memmy-Q, whatever you say, but that is exactly how Houston got into this, people ignore the issues at hand and make up something they wish could happen, but in reality, it cannot. But, conversations with you are like a fresh cow pattie, something to avoid, but if you step into one, you cannot get it off easily, so it’s best to just avoid and step around when you smell it.

  8. J says:

    Now that people know there is an equitable deal available that doesn’t cost as much, there can be an informed discussion about the pay issue. The firefighters and Whitmire messed up by hiding the details of their deal, so Controller Hollins did his job and did the math, and this is where we are.

  9. David Fagan says:

    Another example of not taking into account the last 8 years through the entire court system and their involvement, which was Turner’s CHOICE. That’d what makes the controller’s presentation irrelevant. First, J, start with the legal travels this went through, then look at your statement again.

  10. Meme says:

    David, I left some jobs because, just because, you’ll are free to do the same.
    Quit your whining. It is not becoming of men or women.

  11. C.L. says:

    First,. I’d love a job where I didn’t get a raise for a couple years, then get a three year/18% one (and then a big phat payout). That’s sounds much better than the 1-2% one I recvd for the past decade.

    Second, sounds like Whitmire may be more like Trump than we realized – hide a bunch of shady shit/negotiations and promise the moon while running for office, only for it to become exposed once elected. He’s turning out to be a traveling carnival huckster with a ‘Buy this now ’cause if ya don’t it’s gonna go for three times that in a year’ sales pitch. Nothing to see behind this curtain. Who woulda thunk the $650M he apparently negotiated may not really be the actual cost ? Chris Hollins, apparently. I don’t City Council is gonna take lightly Whitmire’s obfuscations and secrecy on this.

    Re: “Another example of not taking into account the last 8 years through the entire court system and their involvement, which was Turner’s CHOICE. That’d what makes the controller’s presentation irrelevant.” That’s just Silly Business. Hollin’s math and projected costs and presentation of same has no relation to what happened over eight years between two other in-fighting parties. You can’t dismiss Hollin’s determination just because it’s not gonna put as much money in your pocket as you hoped.

  12. David Fagan says:


    Then let the whole thing go back to the judge, who has a say in the matter if the two parties don’t come to an agreement. Let it go back to the judge, who can take much more into consideration than what the controller is using. The Supreme Court has determined going through the judge is constitutional, so that is an option. If that sounds like a better path for the city, then City Council has that option. It appears those are the two choices at this point: this settlement, or if this settlement doesn’t gp through, back to the judge to make the decisions. Either way it’s a difficult situation for the city, but thank Turner, who used millions of dollars to postpone this whole ordeal until he was gone.

    Tiffany Thomas and Edward Pollard voted FOR the legal fees to postpone all of this and allowed it, they have a certain level of responsibility for not pursuing Turner managing his responsibilities in this matter.

    That is how this entire issue got to be what it is, not the fault of firefighters, but the ignorance of people in charge until a judge tells them otherwise. So. If that’s what it takes, send it back to the judge and see what happens.

  13. Well, former Mayor Turner rolled the dice with the courts on this issue for the last eight years and the inevitable tab just kept growing. It is pretty clear that the City of Houston isn’t going to win this legal battle, so continuing the fight is only going to dig our financial hole even deeper. That said, Mayor Whitmire needs to make all the terms of the proposed settlement public, explain why this is settlement is in the best interests of taxpayers, and then let City Council vote on it (after a healthy debate). Everyone needs to understand, however, that if the proposed settlement is rejected, the court could end up giving the firefighters even more money, on much harsher terms/timelines.

    It is amusing that, although former Mayor Turner caused the problem by kicking this financial obligation down the road for eight years, Mayor Whitmire is now the one taking all the heat for trying to resolve it. Geez.

  14. C.L. says:

    Good idea. Let’s send it to the Judge ! Make that happen, David !

  15. Meme says:

    Yes, Greg, a judge who must run in two years, will stick it to the taxpayers.

    Whitmire is taking heat because he is hiding the details. MAGA fools can be found in all forums.

  16. David Fagan says:

    Make it happen? That’s what the City Council will do IF they stop this process. They’ve got a few weeks to play catch up, maybe Tiffany Thomas and Edward Pollard should have been asking these questions last year when they authorized more money for paid-to- delay attorneys. But, they didn’t, so if they didn’t care then, then they shouldn’t care now.

  17. David Fagan says:

    Go ahead and write your council person and tell them you don’t want them to support this issue and vote against the bonds. You have that ability C.L. and MannyQMemeQ. I support you in your right to representation.

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