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Fire union repeats call for contract talks after Turner asks for Prop B ideas

January 10, 2019

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday invited the Houston firefighters union to sit down with him to discuss “any ideas you have” about how to implement the pay parity measure passed by voters last November, but left it unclear whether negotiating pay raises through contract talks was an acceptable idea.

Union President Marty Lancton declined to say whether he would meet with the mayor, instead issuing a response saying the union would not participate in “stage-managed, taxpayer-funded public ‘stakeholder’ forums.”

“Proposition B is now law,” Lancton wrote. “The campaign is over, and it’s past time to implement the proposition.”

Wednesday’s exchange came a week after Turner announced that he would like to meet with the union and others to discuss ways to implement the pay raises mandated under Proposition B, an amendment to the city’s charter requiring firefighters be paid the same as police of equal rank and seniority.

Turner has said implementing the measure would cost the city $100 million a year and would require the layoffs of as many as 1,000 employees, including firefighters and police, as well as cuts in service. He implemented a hiring freeze before the November vote, and has attempted to block implementation of the charter amendment in court. A state district judge last month tossed out a temporary restraining order and denied further attempts by the city and Houston Police Officers Union to delay the measure.

The mayor has resisted calls by the union since the day after the election to return to the bargaining table to hammer out a contract that would phase in the firefighter raises and help the city avoid layoffs and cuts in service. The city, Turner has said, will not sit down to negotiate raises before a judge can decide whether a collective bargaining agreement can supersede the voter-approved amendment.

Asked Wednesday if Turner’s invitation to the fire union meant the mayor now may be open to the idea of contract negotiations, a spokesman would say only that he was open to ideas.

In his letter to Lancton, the mayor reiterated that the city had offered the union raises totaling 9.5 percent over three years, which the firefighters rejected.

“I do not want to lay off any employees; and, I interpret some of the things you have said in public to acknowledge the true state of the city’s financial affairs,” he wrote. “If the sacrifice of city services and city employees and their families in order to finance your pay increase can be avoided, I am open to consideration of your ideas.

“Please join me for a discussion of your thoughts and ideas on Wednesday, January 16, 2019 at 2 p.m. at City Hall,” the letter continued. “Please bring your team. I will be there to hear you out in this public opportunity to find a solution.

Lancton’s responded forcefully, questioning whether Turner would be willing to address or resolve several issues between the two sides, including the dismissal of pending legal claims against the union and an end to threats of layoffs.

“Will you provide a specific date when firefighters will receive the compensation authorized by Prop B?” he wrote. “Will you confirm the city will pay the firefighters back pay from when Prop B was approved by the voters. Will you bring forward you own solutions, and not simply demand that we and others in the community negotiate against each other or ourselves?”

Lancton ended the letter saying, “As you know, the best, most cost-effective way forward is through a collective bargaining contract. Please let us know when you are serious about resolving our differences. We’ll be ready.”

Turner’s “response is the meeting is scheduled for next week,” spokesman Alan Bernstein said in a text message.

robert.downen@chron.com

twitter.com/robdownenchron

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