HOUSTON (CN) – A Texas judge on Wednesday declared unconstitutional a voter-approved measure to raise Houston firefighters’ pay, potentially heading off mass layoffs the mayor said were necessary to fund the mandate.
Passed by 59% of voters last November, Proposition B directed the city to hike firefighters’ salaries so they make as much as police officers of similar rank.
Taking Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner at his word that Prop B would cost the city up to $100 million a year and could force layoffs of hundreds of police in a department with just 5,100 officers who struggle to patrol the 627-square-mile city, the Houston Police Officers’ Union sued the Houston Professional Firefighters Association and the city last November in Harris County Court.
The city teamed up with the police union, both arguing Prop B is unconstitutional.
The city’s finances are hamstrung by a $1.1 billion annual property tax revenue cap voters approved in 2004.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo testified in December that Prop B could be an invitation for thieves to run wild because if police were laid off, the department would not have the manpower to investigate home burglaries.
Harris County District Court Judge Tanya Garrison agreed Wednesday. She wrote in a one-page order that Prop B is preempted by a Texas law giving firefighters and police the right to collectively bargain with cities.
Court-ordered mediation between the city and firefighters’ union to work out a plan to avoid layoffs and give the city more time to implement the raises ended without a deal on May 3.
The city finally implemented Prop B on May 10 when it paid $27.4 million to 3,905 firefighters, including back pay from January of this year.
The City Council approved layoffs of 220 firefighters last month to pay for the raises Turner has estimated would cost the city $79 million in fiscal year 2020, the Houston Chronicle reported.
More than 100 fire cadets and municipal workers have also received pink slips.
The firefighters’ union said in a statement Wednesday it will take the legal battle to a higher court.
“The court’s Prop B ruling is a disappointment, but our fight for what’s right is far from over. Two courts have ruled on the constitutionality of Prop B—one for, one against. We certainly will appeal this ruling. We will continue to strive to force Sylvester Turner to respect the will of 298,000 Prop B voters who sent a strong message that Houston should equally value its police and fire personnel,” it said.