Firefighters deserve to be paid well. They’re the ones running into burning buildings while the rest of us are running out, and there are more than a few Houstonians who owe their lives to the heroic fire fighters who rescued them from fires or – more commonly – administered critical medical service in situations where no fire was involved.
The vast majority of calls answered by the Houston Fire Department are medical, not fire-related. While they share the “first responder” label with police officers, fire fighters do a very different job.
For a lot of complex reasons, Houston’s fire fighters have been paid less than its police officers for the past two decades. Last year, the fire fighters’ union was successful in petitioning for and passing Proposition B in which voters amended the city charter to say that fire fighters had to be paid the same as police officers of “equivalent rank.”
According to the city’s court testimony, Proposition B will cost the city over $100 million per year. Given the city’s revenue cap – also approved in a public vote by taxpayers, that means Houston has to cut $100 million from the budget to comply with the voters’ expressed wishes. Since police and fire fighter pay are basically governed by state law – which supersedes local ordinances and city charters, there is some question as to whether Proposition B is even constitutional.
If you were the mayor of Houston this year, what would you do? Answer this in a 2 page essay.
Some options to consider:
1. A state district court recently found Proposition B “unconstitutional and void in its entirety.” The firefighters union is planning to appeal. This solves the city’s biggest problem temporarily, but fire fighters can seek a change in state law that would require pay parity anyway. They might not be successful, but they might. Mayor Turner wants to negotiate a pay raise, but does not want to commit the city to binding arbitration.
2. Restructuring the Houston Fire Department is long overdue, in the opinion of some. With it’s two-days-a-week shift structure, personnel costs are enormous, and there might be some advantages to simply privatizing the EMS function of the department that has nothing to do with fires.
3. In 2020, the city could ask voters to repeal the city charter’s revenue cap, which would allow the city to simply raise taxes to pay fire fighters more.
This PowerPoint presented to the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee on January 31 is a great overview of the Houston’s financial situation after the passage of Proposition B: http://www.houstontx.gov/council/committees/bfacommittee/20190131/proposition-b-impact.pdf
After the January 31 meeting, committee chair Dave Martin wrote this memo to Mayor Turner outlining some possible options: http://www.houstontx.gov/council/committees/bfacommittee/20190131/Suggestions-Prop-B-Implementation.pdf
The Houston Chronicle covered the November, 2018, vote by citizens to approve Proposition B: https://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Voters-OK-firefighter-pay-parity-ReBuild-Houston-13369516.php
This will be a major issue in this year’s City of Houston elections: https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/politics/2018/12/28/315719/how-pay-parity-for-firefighters-could-define-the-2019-houston-mayors-race/
Commentator Bill King, who ran against Mayor Turner in 2015 and may do so again, has a good blog piece on the history of pay parity from a different perspective: http://www.billkingblog.com/city-of-houston-finances/unpacking-the-fire-fighters-pay-ballot-proposition/
A district court found Prop B unconstitutional: https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/2019/05/15/333305/judge-prop-b-is-unconstitutional-and-void-in-its-entirety/
Mayor Turner wants to negotiate, but not through binding arbitration: https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Turner-rejects-fire-union-request-to-take-13868295.php