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Fire association must be transparent about ‘pay parity’ initiative

August 2, 2018

On Monday, July 31, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association filed a lawsuit against Mayor Sylvester Turner and me. This action was an effort to stifle the city’s efforts to give our taxpayers complete and factual data regarding the HPFFA’s “pay parity” initiative and to hide the fiscal data pertinent to this November 2018 ballot item. This lawsuit and the attempt to suppress the disclosure of these facts are a disservice to the public and to the voters’ right to transparent government. In my role as chairman of the city of Houston budget and fiscal affairs (BFA) committee , I am obligated by the laws of the state to present the financial implications of any charter amendment, and I have not used the BFA committee to “electioneer,” because supporting or opposing “pay parity” were not topics of our budget meeting conversations.

What my committee did discuss were the possible fiscal ramifications of the firefighter union’s proposed charter amendment, which will appear on the ballot on Tuesday, Nov. 6, pending City Council approval. We, as a council, have a duty to the citizens of Houston to thoroughly review the charter amendment’s language and its impact to the city’s budget.

This is a very important issue, one that is very confusing because there is no clear definition of “pay parity.” The HPFFA’s leaders continue to decline opportunities to help us understand their charter amendment language, as they did last Thursday when they refused to tell their story at our committee meeting. The association was invited to present its point of view, but it declined to do so.

The city of Houston has repeatedly asked the HPFFA to present its financial data to our committee and clarify “pay parity” so that the council can look at this issue more objectively to prepare for its financial impact. Let us remember, the city offered the firefighters a pay increase of 3.5 percent in 2014, and a 9.5 percent increase over three years during Mayor Turner’s first year in office. Both were rejected as the HPFFA walked out of the negotiations.

Our committee meeting held last Thursday was intended to add more transparency to the process of implementing firefighter “pay parity.” We want everyone to be informed on all aspects of this issue. This BFA meeting was part of our due diligence effort to make sure we have taken into account all details of the firefighter charter amendment that could impact on how taxpayer dollars are spent.

The city’s 2019 fiscal year began on July 1, 2018, so the impact we would feel if this charter amendment passes would begin on Jan. 1. The anticipated increase in the Houston Fire Department’s budget would be $50 million for six months. Implementing a 25 percent salary increase while working under the voter imposed revenue cap — which does not allow us to create any new revenue stream — gives us no other alternative but to rely on budget cuts. As Houston Fire Department Chief Samuel Peña stated, that means “layoffs.”

If the HPFFA’s leaders have the data and numbers to assist us in making this issue easier to understand, we would like to hear from them. We offered them the chance, but they refused to present their data.

On Wednesday, Aug. 8 , the City Council will vote to put the “pay parity” charter amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot for our voters to decide this issue. After the measure is placed on the ballot, in the spirit of full and complete transparency, I will again invite Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association IAFF Local 341 President Marty Lancton to present his facts and to participate in another BFA committee meeting. We will give him the chance to tell our taxpayers why they should vote for an additional $100 million per year budget expense.

I appreciate the hard and heroic work all of our first responders perform, especially our men and women of the Houston Fire Department. Our efforts at full transparency are critical, because every taxpayer msut be able to make an informed decision regarding “pay parity.”

Martin is Houston city councilman for District E and chair of the city’s budget and fiscal affairs committee.

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