Hous­ton fire­fight­ers take bat­tle over pay to vot­ers

Texarkana Gazette - - STATE - By Juan A. Lozano

HOUS­TON—Hous­ton fire­fight­ers who have been in a bit­ter bat­tle with the city for higher wages are tak­ing their case to vot­ers.

Fire­fight­ers in the na­tion’s fourth-largest city are ask­ing for pay par­ity with lo­cal po­lice in a pro­posal that Hous­ton’s mayor in­sists would be “a fi­nan­cial dis­as­ter for the city.”

Hous­ton res­i­dents will vote on the plan for the city’s 4,000 fire­fight­ers on Nov. 6.

The fire­fight­ers’ union says its mem­bers have had only a 3 per­cent pay raise since 2011 and they are woe­fully un­der­paid com­pared with Hous­ton po­lice and other fire de­part­ments across the coun­try. Hous­ton po­lice of­fi­cers got a 7 per­cent pay raise ear­lier this month.

Mayor Sylvester Turner says he re­spects fire­fight­ers, but that the pro­posal would cost too much. The city es­ti­mates the ini­tial cost at up to $100 mil­lion. Turner says city ser­vices would have to be cut and hun­dreds of city work­ers, in­clud­ing first re­spon­ders, would lose their jobs.

Marty Lanc­ton, pres­i­dent of the Hous­ton Pro­fes­sional Fire Fight­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, calls Turner’s dire fi­nan­cial warn­ings a “phony bud­get cri­sis.” Lanc­ton has ques­tioned the chang­ing fig­ures the city has used to cal­cu­late the price tag, but he didn’t of­fer his own cost es­ti­mate.

Lanc­ton said some fire­fight­ers have to work two or three jobs to sup­port their fam­i­lies.

“When you don’t equally value the ser­vice and sac­ri­fice of fire­fight­ers just like you do po­lice of­fi­cers, you fail to make pub­lic safety the No. 1 pri­or­ity,” Lanc­ton said.

The plan calls for fire­fight­ers and po­lice of­fi­cers of sim­i­lar rank or sta­tus to be paid equally. Ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Bu­reau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics, the con­cept is as old as the two pro­fes­sions, but pay par­ity has steadily eroded since the 1950s. Sev­eral large U.S. cities, in­clud­ing Chicago, Dal­las, Los An­ge­les and New York still have pay par­ity be­tween fire­fight­ers and po­lice of­fi­cers.

Ac­cord­ing to data from the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Fire Fight­ers, the start­ing salary of a fire­fighter in Hous­ton is $40,170; in Phoenix it’s $48,526; in Chicago it’s $56,304; and in Los An­ge­les it’s $72,704.

Among Texas’ largest cities, Austin, Fort Worth and San An­to­nio all have higher start­ing fire­fighter salaries. Last month, Dal­las, boosted the start­ing pay of its fire­fight­ers to $60,000.

In Hous­ton, a fire­fighter trainee’s salary is $28,024 while a po­lice cadet’s salary is $42,000. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the po­lice acad­emy, the salary goes up to nearly $50,000.

The bat­tle over pay fol­lows a bit­ter fight over pen­sion re­form, led by Turner, to re­duce the city’s huge pen­sion debt. Amid the on­go­ing ten­sion, two fire­fight­ers last year snubbed Turner by not shak­ing his hand at pub­lic events.

Af­ter the most re­cent con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions failed, Hous­ton fire­fight­ers sub­mit­ted a pe­ti­tion to the city in July 2017 to put the pay par­ity mea­sure on the bal­lot. Fire­fight­ers ac­cused Turner’s ad­min­is­tra­tion of slow-walk­ing the pe­ti­tion’s ver­i­fi­ca­tion process and pre­vent­ing it from be­ing val­i­dated in time for the Novem­ber 2017 elec­tion. They later filed a law­suit to get the mea­sure on this year’s bal­lot.

Turner, who’s cam­paigned against the ref­er­en­dum at town hall meet­ings and on so­cial me­dia, says fire­fight­ers would need a 29 per­cent pay hike to bring them in line with po­lice of­fi­cers.

“I love the fire­fight­ers. I re­spect what they do,” Turner said at a town hall meet­ing Tues­day. “But the city can­not af­ford to give any em­ployee group any­thing close to a 29 per­cent pay raise.”

Turner said that be­tween 2005 and 2010, fire­fight­ers re­ceived raises to­tal­ing about 34 per­cent. He says the city has of­fered a 9.5 per­cent pay raise that is still on the ta­ble.

Those against the mea­sure in­clude lo­cal busi­ness groups, Demo­cratic and Re­pub­li­can of­fi­cials, and the unions rep­re­sent­ing po­lice of­fi­cers and mu­nic­i­pal work­ers, he said.

Bran­don Rot­ting­haus, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton, be­lieves the bal­lot mea­sure has a good chance of be­ing ap­proved be­cause of the “pos­i­tive view most peo­ple have of first re­spon­ders, es­pe­cially fire­fight­ers.”

While both sides still have in­cen­tives to find an eq­ui­table so­lu­tion to the pay dis­pute, the “poi­soned” re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two sides might ul­ti­mately make that too dif­fi­cult to achieve, Rot­ting­haus said.

Brett Coomer/Hous­ton Chron­i­cle via AP

■ Hous­ton fire­fight­ers Ja­son Beasley, left, and Bucky Glenn carry a sign to a truck Sept. 25 as they pre­pare to talk to peo­ple about Propo­si­tion B, the pay “par­ity” item on the Novem­ber bal­lot in Hous­ton.

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