HOUSTON (CN) – Houston firefighters’ wallets just got a little fatter, after a Texas judge on Tuesday denied the city’s request to stay a voter-approved amendment requiring firefighters to be paid as much as police.
In an order dissolving a temporary restraining order against the so-called “pay-parity” amendment, Harris County Judge Randy Wilson said the delay is costing Houston firefighters $2 million per week in salary and deferred to the will of the city’s voters.
They passed the measure by a 59-to-41 percent vote on Nov. 6, despite fierce opposition from Mayor Sylvester Turner who warned its more than $100 million annual cost would force the city to lay off hundreds of police officers, city workers and firefighters.
Houston firefighters’ pay had been lagging behind their counterparts’ salaries in Texas’ largest cities, due to an impasse between the Houston Professional Firefighters Association IAFF-Local 341 and city officials in pay raise negotiations.
Houston has around 3,950 firefighters. Before the pay-parity charter amendment went on the books in late November, their starting salary was $40,127, compared to the $51,000 average first-year salaries of firefighters in San Antonio, Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth.
The amendment mandates pay raises for firefighters so they make as much as police of similar rank and seniority.
Fearing layoffs that will further diminish the already barebones police department of around 5,100 officers that struggles to patrol the 627-square-mile city, the Houston Police Officers Union sued the firefighters union and the city on Nov. 30 and obtained a temporary restraining order against Proposition B.
The city threw its support behind the police. It asked Judge Wilson to stay enforcement of the pay-parity amendment in a brief filed Dec. 10.
Both the city and police union argued in a hearing last Friday that Proposition B is preempted by a Texas law Houston voters approved in 2004 under which firefighters’ pay must be based on, or comparable to, similarly situated private-sector employees, not public employees like police officers.
But Wilson found Tuesday that argument conflicts with the city’s position in other cases.
“Ironically, the city has argued in other litigation that because firemen have unique job responsibilities, the city cannot determine what the prevailing private-sector compensation would be. Specifically, the ‘city’s contention is that no such private sector standard exists,’” he wrote in a 6-page order.
Wilson wrote that Proposition B and the 2004 law “can stand together” because paying firefighters a salary equal to comparable private-sector workers “does not preclude the municipality from providing compensation equal with the police pursuant to the pay-parity amendment.”
The judge said keeping an injunction in place hurts firefighters because they may not be able to sue to recover back wages due to the city’s sovereign immunity.
Houston, meanwhile, can recoup its overpayments if the amendment is ultimately found unconstitutional, Wilson wrote.
The judge dissolved the temporary restraining order and denied both the police union’s temporary injunction request and the city’s motion for a stay, clearing the way for firefighters to immediately receive their pay raises.
The order is likely Wilson’s last word in the case because he lost his re-election bid in November to Democrat Tanya Garrison. She will take his seat in January.
Representatives for the unions did not immediately respond Tuesday when asked for their reactions to the order.
Mayor Turner said the city will start to implement Proposition B, pending a final court ruling on whether it is pre-empted by state law, and said some firefighters will lose their jobs.
"Make no mistake: The stakes are extremely high, as the judge highlighted in the ruling. The testimony, he said, was that Prop. B will cost the city over $100 million per year, which could result in significant layoffs and a reduction of services," the mayor said in a statement.
"Sadly, that is true, and it will trigger the layoffs of less senior firefighters, to pay the salaries of firefighters who have been employed longer."