De­bate over pay ‘par­ity’ heats up

Fire union boss, Turner scrap over cost of mea­sure

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Jasper Scherer STAFF WRITER

Af­ter months of trad­ing barbs from a dis­tance, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the head of Hous­ton’s fire­fight­ers’ union met in a vig­or­ous but civil de­bate Sat­ur­day, dis­play­ing their fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences over just about ev­ery­thing re­lated to the Novem­ber bal­lot ref­er­en­dum that would grant fire­fight­ers pay “par­ity” with po­lice of­fi­cers of cor­re­spond­ing rank and se­nior­ity.

The dis­pute re­volves around a di­vi­sive ques­tion: If the mea­sure known as Propo­si­tion B passes, can the city af­ford it? If any­thing, the de­bate at St. John’s United Methodist Church be­tween Turner and Hous­ton Pro­fes­sional Fire Fire­fight­ers As­so­ci­a­tion Pres­i­dent Marty Lanc­ton re­vealed how ir­rec­on­cil­able the op­pos­ing views on that ques­tion truly are.

From Turner’s per­spec­tive, Hous­ton fire­fight­ers de­serve to re­ceive bet­ter pay, but not to the ex­tent that their raises “bank­rupt the city,” as he claimed Propo­si­tion B would do by man­dat­ing 29 per­cent raises for fire­fight­ers, at a cost of than $100 mil­lion a year.

What’s more, Turner said Sat­ur­day, the mea­sure does not call for true “par­ity” be­cause it man-

dates only equal pay, ig­nor­ing re­tire­ment ben­e­fits, train­ing and ed­u­ca­tion re­quire­ments — in prac­tice grant­ing fire­fight­ers bet­ter pay, Turner ar­gued.

To Lanc­ton, the city has bal­anced its bud­get on the backs of fire­fight­ers to the point that the depart­ment’s rank-and-file mem­bers are strug­gling to make ends meet, with salaries far lower than those of fire­fight­ers in other Texas cities.

“What Hous­ton fire­fight­ers seek is fair, com­pet­i­tive pay. Be­cause of low pay, many Hous­ton-trained fire­fight­ers are leav­ing for other de­part­ments,” Lanc­ton said. “Our pay is so low that start­ing fire­fight­ers, sup­port­ing fam­i­lies, can even qual­ify for govern­ment as­sis­tance. We've asked the city for com­pet­i­tive pay for nearly a decade. The city has re­peat­edly re­jected our ef­forts to reach an ac­cept­able con­tract agree­ment.”

The city has cre­ated a “phony, man­u­fac­tured bud­get cri­sis,” Lanc­ton said, when it can in­deed af­ford to in­crease fire­fighter pay to match that of po­lice of­fi­cers.

To that point, mod­er­a­tor and Chron­i­cle opin­ion ed­i­tor Lisa Falken­berg posed a ques­tion to Lanc­ton that spawned one of the de­bate’s no­table mo­ments: You have ques­tioned Turner’s claim that Prop B would cost $98 mil­lion, she said, “but surely to know it's wrong, you must have done the re­search to know the right fig­ure. What is it?”

“You know, that’s a great ques­tion for you to ask the city,” Lanc­ton said, go­ing on to point out that Turner’s cost es­ti­mate has fluc­tu­ated at times — and that Propo­si­tion B “does not spec­ify any­thing about a per­cent­age pay raise.”

“If you look at the lan­guage within the propo­si­tion and you see any­where in there about a 25 per­cent pay raise, I will stop this de­bate right now,” Lanc­ton said.

Turner fir­ing back: “You can't ask for pay par­ity with­out know­ing what the cost is. Please bear in mind, this is not my ref­er­en­dum. This is Marty's ref­er­en­dum. If you are ask­ing the vot­ers to vote for this, you ought to know what the cost of your pe­ti­tion is.”

“I don't have a fi­nance depart­ment that works for me, that I hire,” Lanc­ton said af­ter the de­bate, ex­plain­ing why the union has not of­fered its own es­ti­mate. He again cast doubt on the city’s es­ti­mates, ar­gu­ing they con­tain as­sump­tions about cer­tain costs.

City Con­troller Chris Brown ad­mit­ted as much to City Coun­cil on Wed­nes­day while dis­cussing his es­ti­mate that the par­ity mea­sure would cost about $85 mil­lion a year. Brown called the cost “un­sus­tain­able.”

Just be­fore the hour­long de­bate came to an end, Lanc­ton and Turner were each asked to “draw a pic­ture” of what would hap­pen if the item passes.

Lanc­ton, who has pre­vi­ously sug­gested that he is open to reach­ing pay par­ity over mul­ti­ple years, an­swered first: “If it passes, we do not ex­pect any­thing to hap­pen overnight. What we are telling the pub­lic … is that we are will­ing to work with the ad­min­is­tra­tion, work with any­body that wants to sit down and fo­cus on how we can make sure that we can im­ple­ment a sys­tem that is eq­ui­table and fair.”

Turner again jumped on Lanc­ton's claim, say­ing in essence that if Prop B passes, the law would com­pel changes to hap­pen overnight.

“If the vot­ers vote this in, you are man­dat­ing the city, you are man­dat­ing me to en­force it and to im­ple­ment it based on the time­line, and that is im­me­di­ate,” Turner said. “You can­not then ne­go­ti­ate the peo­ple's vote.”

Lanc­ton, on this mat­ter and when asked why the union has not ac­cepted Turner’s stand­ing 9.5 per­cent pay raise of­fer, re­turned to the state’s lo­cal govern­ment code.

He sug­gested the code pre­vents the union from ac­cept­ing a new con­tract now. And Lanc­ton pointed to a pro­vi­sion that says the code “pre­empts all con­trary lo­cal or­di­nances,” which he says would the­o­ret­i­cally al­low the city and fire­fight­ers to reach a more agree­able col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing con­tract to su­per­sede Prop B.

“If you’re tak­ing the po­si­tion that col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing can trump the elec­tion on Nov. 6, then why are we do­ing this elec­tion in the first place?” Turner asked Lanc­ton. “If col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing trumps, there is no rea­son to be putting the pub­lic through this di­vi­sive process. You can­not have it both ways.”

Lanc­ton stood firm, telling Turner that “if the city wants to equally value the ser­vice and sac­ri­fice of the Hous­ton fire­fight­ers, you can come up with a way to phase in any­thing that the mayor and the city and the fire­fight­ers want to do.”

“But the fire­fight­ers need to have some­body sit­ting across the table that shows up and that's will­ing to work with them,” he added, al­lud­ing to his prior claims that Turner skipped out on the bar­gain­ing process.

Turner later called that claim a “red her­ring.”

“You have your ne­go­ti­at­ing teams,” he said af­ter the de­bate. “They come, they get their march­ing or­ders and their in­struc­tions from me. It's the same in ev­ery process.”

The de­bate, hosted by the Har­ris County Demo­cratic Party, played out in fairly civil terms, a no­table de­vel­op­ment given the ran­corous di­a­logue that has sur­rounded the is­sue so far. Turner and Lanc­ton did al­lude at times to the di­vi­sive­ness Propo­si­tion B has cre­ated, with Turner crit­i­ciz­ing Lanc­ton for mak­ing the process “con­tentious” by putting “em­ployee man­age­ment de­ci­sions into the pub­lic do­main.”

“You're putting em­ploy­ees against one an­other. It is not good pub­lic pol­icy,” Turner said.

Lanc­ton at one point jabbed at Turner for not at­tend­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions, then post­ing in re­cent months about Prop B on so­cial me­dia.

“If the de­ci­sions don't come at a ne­go­ti­at­ing table but they con­tinue to come over Twit­ter, that's not good lead­er­ship,” Lanc­ton said. “That's not go­ing to get a res­o­lu­tion.”

Turner has ar­gued for months that the city can­not af­ford Propo­si­tion B, warn­ing it would force hun­dreds of worker lay­offs, in­clud­ing fire­fight­ers and po­lice, in part be­cause the city op­er­ates un­der a voter-im­posed rev­enue cap.

Brown’s $85 mil­lion es­ti­mate does not ac­count for the 7 per­cent raise granted to po­lice of­fi­cers in a twoyear con­tract ap­proved by City Coun­cil on Wed­nes­day.

The deal, which goes into ef­fect in July 2019, means po­lice will have re­ceived raises of more than 30 per­cent since 2011, while fire­fight­ers have re­ceived just a 3 per­cent raise.

In Hous­ton, a first-year fire­fighter cur­rently earns about $40,000, or $12,000 less than fire­fight­ers in San An­to­nio and about $20,000 less than both start­ing fire­fight­ers and po­lice in Dal­las. Pay for a Hous­ton po­lice of­fi­cer who has com­pleted a six-month pro­ba­tion­ary pe­riod is about $55,000.

Turner typ­i­cally ac­counts for the dis­par­ity by fo­cus­ing on the fire union’s re­jec­tion of pre­vi­ous of­fers that would have oth­er­wise made the gap less se­vere; union of­fi­cials say they turned down a 4 per­cent raise un­der for­mer mayor An­nise Parker be­cause it was un­der­cut by health pre­mium in­creases, while Turner’s 9.5 per­cent raise was of­fered in bad faith af­ter col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing talks had bro­ken down.

But the mayor took a new ap­proach to ex­plain the dis­par­ity on Sat­ur­day, point­ing to fire­fight­ers’ cu­mu­la­tive pay raise of about 34 per­cent be­tween 2005 and 2010, while po­lice took in a 15 per­cent raise dur­ing that time.

“Po­lice did not go out and ask for a ref­er­en­dum,” Turner said.

“You can't ask for pay par­ity with­out know­ing what the cost is. … If you are ask­ing the vot­ers to vote for this, you ought to know what the cost of your pe­ti­tion is.” Sylvester Turner, Hous­ton mayor

“What Hous­ton fire­fight­ers seek is fair, com­pet­i­tive pay. … Our pay is so low that start­ing fire­fight­ers, sup­port­ing fam­i­lies, can even qual­ify for govern­ment as­sis­tance.” Marty Lanc­ton, HPFFA pres­i­dent

Jasper Scherer / Staff

Mayor Sylvester Turner and Hous­ton Pro­fes­sional Fire Fire­fight­ers As­so­ci­a­tion Pres­i­dent Marty Lanc­ton de­bated Prop B, the bal­lot ref­er­en­dum that would grant fire­fight­ers pay par­ity with po­lice.

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