Firefighters’ Fight With Houston Still Smoldering

HOUSTON (CN) — You need to make a deal, a state appeals court told Houston on Thursday, ordering the city to mediation with a firefighters union fighting for voter-approved pay raises held up in litigation.

The order came one day after the Houston City Council reversed planned layoffs for 220 firefighters, who received pink slips in April, a move Mayor Sylvester Turner said was necessary to pay for Proposition B.

Prop. B, passed by 59% of voters last November, directed the city to hike firefighters’ salaries so they make as much as police officers of similar rank.

The council on Wednesday also canceled firefighter demotions that were in the works to help the city cover the Prop. B raises.

Turner estimates Prop. B will cost Houston $79 million in fiscal year 2020 and has said the city cannot afford to keep staffing levels as is because its finances are shackled by a property tax revenue cap voters approved in 2004.

The cap limits the annual increases in property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

The city had also sent layoff notices to 47 municipal employees after former Harris County Judge Randy Wilson ruled last December that Prop. B is constitutional.

Wilson’s ruling came in response to a lawsuit brought by the Houston Police Officers Union on Nov. 30 against the Houston Professional Firefighters Union.

The police oppose Prop. B because they fear it could necessitate police layoffs, depleting an already stretched thin force of 5,100 officers who are hard-pressed to patrol the 627-square mile city.

The police union also named the city as a defendant. But the city joined forces in the litigation with the police union, with both arguing that Prop. B is unconstitutional.

After Judge Wilson ratified Prop. B, the city finally started implementing it on May 10 this year, when it paid $27.4 million to 3,905 firefighters, including back pay from January.

But Judge Wilson’s successor, Harris County Judge Tanya Garrison, turned the process on its head when she declared Prop B. unconstitutional on May 15. She found Prop. B is preempted by a Texas law giving firefighters and police the right to collectively bargain with cities.

The firefighters union appealed to the Texas 14th Court of Appeals, which abated the appeal for 60 days on Thursday and referred the dispute to mediation.

Mayor Turner said at Wednesday’s City Council meeting that due to Garrison’s ruling, the city had overpaid firefighters by $17 million and at some point the city might have to try to recoup it.

City Councilwoman Brenda Stardig expressed concern during the meeting about what that will mean for firefighters.

“I’ve heard that people have bought vehicles they haven’t been able to buy in years or made down payments on them. I don’t know what’s happened. I just know we have to be very sensitive about undoing someone’s world,” she said.

Turner responded: “We are being very sensitive, but the city cannot give a gift. We certainly cannot give a $17 million gift to anybody.”

Turner said recovering the money would not require a vote from the City Council, but he hoped the city and firefighters union could work out a deal in collective bargaining in which the firefighters could keep it.

“I am not trying to claw it back. The city has every right to claw it back. The city could take it out of people’s paychecks right now. We could. We haven’t done that. But the way I have viewed it is, it is there as a credit in future negotiations,” Turner said.

With the 14th Court of Appeals’ mediation order, the city and firefighters will get another shot at resolving the dispute themselves.

The firefighters union once was an ally of Mayor Turner. It supported him in his 2015 mayoral campaign with its members canvassing neighborhoods, urging Houstonians to vote for him. But the union now considers Turner Public Enemy No. 1 due to his opposition to Prop. B.

Turner is a Houston native and Harvard Law School graduate. He represented Houston for 27 years in the Texas Legislature before being elected mayor.

He is up for re-election this year and is facing a stiff challenge from Tony Buzbee, a trial attorney who won a record-setting multimillion-dollar jury verdict against BP in 2009 and helped Rick Perry fight off public corruption charges a grand jury leveled against him in 2014 when he was governor.

Buzbee is trying to capitalize on Turner’s unpopularity with Houston firefighters.

He said in a statement Thursday that by his campaign team’s calculations, Prop. B would cost the city $53 million, about 1 percent of its budget.

“The mayor needs to quit pretending that we don’t have the money to pay firefighters, while at the same time wasting millions of dollars on his pet projects,” Buzbee said. “It’s pretty simple: Give the firefighters the raise the voters voted for, or at the least, sit down with them and work something out. A competent mayor would roll up his sleeves and personally work out a deal with the firefighters.”

City Councilman Dwight Boykins also is running for mayor. He too has criticized Turner’s handling of Prop. B. He told local media in May that Turner would rather lay off firefighters and city workers than negotiate a plan to raise firefighters’ pay.

The firefighters’ union voted unanimously on June 6 to endorse Boykins’ mayoral bid.

Turner said on Thursday he is not optimistic that mediation will lead to a breakthrough.

“The parties met three different times in mediation with no success. While the most realistic course to move forward is to proceed with state-authorized collective bargaining, which the firefighters requested from the Legislature in 2005, the City of Houston will comply with the order to mediate,” Turner said in a statement.

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