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City moves to implement Proposition B despite uncertainties

December 20, 2018

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday his administration is moving forward to implement the voter-approved charter amendment granting Houston firefighters equal pay to police of corresponding rank and seniority, though the city has not yet determined when firefighters will begin receiving increased paychecks or how the charter amendment will impact individual city departments.

Turner’s administration plans to lay off hundreds of city employees, including firefighters and police officers, to cover the cost of paying firefighters on par with police officers, a move city officials say will amount to a 29 percent raise costing the city upwards of $100 million annually.

The mayor said he did not know when the city would begin layoffs, but indicated to reporters Wednesday that it likely would take several months to put Proposition B into effect.

“I don’t want anybody to operate under the assumption that even as we move forward to the implementation that checks are going to start flowing in January,” Turner said. “It will take some time.”

During the lead-up to the Prop B election, Turner said the city would be forced to lay off up to 1,000 city employees, including firefighters and police officers, a move that firefighters say Turner could avoid if he renews contract negotiations with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association.

The mayor repeatedly has rejected the union’s offer to return to the bargaining table, saying a court should first decide whether collective bargaining can supersede the voter-approved amendment. The fire union has argued a new contract would override Prop B, and some labor lawyers agree.

Turner’s comments came a day after a state district judge lifted a temporary restraining order that had blocked implementation of the charter amendment. The ruling was part of a lawsuit filed by the Houston Police Officers’ Union against the city and fire union, in which police officers are seeking to nullify the amendment by contending it is unconstitutional.

Asked why the city is only now beginning to put Proposition B into effect, Turner said his administration did not take action while the temporary restraining order was in place from Nov. 30 until Tuesday. Proposition B passed Nov. 6 with 59 percent of the vote.

The fire union, meanwhile, has sought to negotiate a new contract with Turner that would allow the city to phase in Proposition B. Fire union president Marty Lancton has cast Turner’s refusal to return to the table as vindictive, and said after state District Judge Randy Wilson’s ruling Tuesday that the mayor could implement the amendment or “pick up the phone and call firefighters so we can work toward a solution that implements the will of the voters in the best possible way.”

Asked Wednesday about the union’s negotiation offer, Turner did not indicate he has was any closer to sitting down with the firefighters, saying that doing so would go against “what people wanted” when they approved Proposition B. The firefighters, who have contended that the police union’s lawsuit is aimed at circumventing the will of the voters, say it is possible to arrive at “a solution that implements the will of the voters in the best possible way.”

The mayor previously has said the city could not phase in Proposition B, and since has accused firefighters of attempting to confuse the issue by calling for negotiations while the lawsuits play out in the courts.

In addition to dissolving the restraining order, Wilson on Tuesday shot down attempts by the police union and city to secure an injunction on the measure and to halt legal proceedings in the case. HPOU President Joe Gamaldi said he would not appeal the ruling, while Turner did not say whether the city plans to do so.

City Council on Wednesday did extend its contract with a law firm representing the city in a separate Prop B-related lawsuit against the fire union. The 12-4 vote allotted an additional $185,000 in legal fees with Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal & Zech, P.C., bringing the city’s costs to a maximum of $475,000.

That case originated in June 2017, when the fire union sued the city over stalled contract talks, alleging that the city did not bargain in good faith. The two sides never bridged the gap between the fire union’s request for a 20 percent raise over three years and the city’s counter offer for a 4 percent raise over two years.

In that lawsuit, the firefighters are seeking to settle the contract dispute by having a jury set a new contract, a move the city has argued is unconstitutional. A state district judge ruled against the city, which it has appealed to Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals.

The contract extension was the only action item taken by the council Wednesday that related directly to Prop B, but the looming pay hikes seeped into talks on everything from garbage collection to art installations.

“Resources are about to get even thinner,” Turner said at one point. “Money is not printed on a machine behind us. We have limited dollars.”

In September, Turner asked each department to submit scenarios in which their budgets could be cut by 3.4 percent or 5.2 percent.

The looming stress to city finances prompted Council member Dwight Boykins to propose a flat, monthly $25 garbage collection fee to offset the pay raises, which he continues to float despite Turner’s rejection of the idea.

The likely necessity for drastic action without a new contract agreement was evident Wednesday.

“The citizens know what they voted for and they voted to approve pay parity,” Council member Michael Kubosh said.

He and Turner agreed on that much.

“We have to make tough calls and tough decisions,” the mayor said.

jasper.scherer@chron.com

robert.downen@chron.com

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