Vote yes: Take the pol­i­tics out of pub­lic safety Should fire­fighter pay match po­lice salaries?

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Pa­trick M. Lanc­ton

For Hous­ton fire­fight­ers, the last decade has been dif­fi­cult as we watched our pay dra­mat­i­cally erode. As the city of Hous­ton found ways to in­crease pay for po­lice of­fi­cers by 30 per­cent since 2011, our pay rose by only 3 per­cent in that time. One Hous­ton fire­fighter was even fea­tured on a poster for fed­er­ally sup­ported Sec­tion 8 hous­ing.

By vot­ing “yes” for Propo­si­tion B in the Novem­ber elec­tion, vot­ers can help take the pol­i­tics out of pub­lic safety in Hous­ton. Fire­fight­ers have asked the city for com­pet­i­tive pay and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions for sev­eral years. This fol­lowed our giv­ing the city ma­jor con­ces­sions af­ter the econ­omy col­lapsed in 2008. City prom­ises of bet­ter pay when the econ­omy im­proved were not kept.

In­stead, city politi­cians refuse to equally value the ser­vice and sac­ri­fices of Hous­ton first re­spon­ders. Now, too many Hous­ton-trained fire­fight­ers are leav­ing for other de­part­ments around the na­tion, in­clud­ing sub­ur­ban de­part­ments that pay al­most twice the start­ing salary as Hous­ton.

Some sug­gest fire and po­lice jobs are dif­fer­ent and should not be linked by pay. In fact, fire and po­lice are paid equally on a rank-by-rank ba­sis through­out the United States — in­clud­ing in New York, Los An­ge­les, Chicago and Dal­las. The five branches of the mil­i­tary also have equal-pay struc­tures for hun­dreds of jobs. A navy chief petty of­fi­cer, for ex­am­ple, is paid the same as an army staff sergeant. And in Hous­ton, the pay of City Coun­cil mem­bers is linked with that of lo­cal judges. What no­body

“More than 75 per­cent of the sur­veyed cit­i­zens sup­ported com­pen­sat­ing our fire and po­lice pro­fes­sion­als equally. They rec­og­nized that the re­quire­ments and risks of the two jobs are sim­i­lar, and they viewed the is­sue as ur­gent.”

men­tions lo­cally any­more is that po­lice and fire­fight­ers had pay par­ity for many years here — at the re­quest of po­lice.

The city of Hous­ton’s so-called of­fers of fire­fighter pay raises in re­cent years are mostly po­lit­i­cal smoke and mir­rors. The pro­posed “raises” of­fers came with ma­jor work­place con­ces­sions, thou­sands of dol­lars of in­creased health in­surance pre­mi­ums per fire­fighter, and con­tin­u­ing threats of fire­fight­ers lay­offs and sta­tion clo­sures. In other words, the city ex­pected us to fund our own pay raises.

Some ask how fire­fighter raises should be funded. Since Hous­ton has a cap on prop­erty taxes, vot­ing “YES” for Prop. B would not raise taxes. The Hous­ton Fire De­part­ment gen­er­ates more than $100 mil­lion an­nu­ally in busi­ness per­mits, fees and other ser­vices. Sim­ply mov­ing that rev­enue to the fire de­part­ment bud­get, in­stead of rak­ing it into the gen­eral fund, would fund the pay raise. Another con­sid­er­a­tion is that not one cent of the voter-ap­proved Prop. H “pub­lic safety” fund cre­ated in 2006 has gone to the fire de­part­ment bud­get. With strong city rev­enues, the fund can gen­er­ate up to $90 mil­lion per year. Since the fire de­part­ment bud­get has re­peat­edly been cut in the past decade, the city’s ex­pen­di­tures from this fund de­serve fur­ther scru­tiny.

In June, a sci­en­tific sur­vey was taken of Hous­ton res­i­dents. More than 75 per­cent of the sur­veyed cit­i­zens sup­ported com­pen­sat­ing our fire and po­lice pro­fes­sion­als equally. They rec­og­nized that the re­quire­ments and risks of the two jobs are sim­i­lar, and they viewed the is­sue as ur­gent. The same was true of the 60,000 Hous­ton vot­ers that signed pe­ti­tions — in record time, just over a week — to put the pay raise on the bal­lot.

If the city had cer­ti­fied the sig­na­tures on time, in ac­cor­dance with the law, this elec­tion would have been held last year. In­stead, some city politi­cians chose to pun­ish fire­fight­ers for seek­ing voter help. It ac­tu­ally took an or­der from a state dis­trict judge to com­pel the city to obey the law and cer­tify the pe­ti­tions and hold the elec­tion.

Pol­i­tics aside, we ap­pre­ci­ate the sup­port of the more 60,000 Hous­ton vot­ers who signed pe­ti­tions in sup­port of us. We also re­main grate­ful that fire and EMS were once again the top-rated ser­vice pro­vided by the city of Hous­ton. Through it all, we con­tinue to strive to main­tain the trust of the com­mu­ni­ties we serve. With that in mind, we re­spect­fully ask Hous­ton vot­ers to ap­prove a hard-earned fire­fighter pay raise.

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