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Mayor Turner institutes hiring freeze, citing firefighter ‘parity’ referendum

September 25, 2018

Mayor Sylvester Turner has instituted a hiring freeze across the city government’s roughly 21,400 positions, ordering department directors seeking exceptions to meet with him or his chief of staff in person.

The directive, he wrote in a memo dated Friday, will be reviewed “at a later date this year.” Executive positions are exempt from the freeze, but those already require mayoral approval.

Mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said the order was spurred by Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot. That measure would give firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank and seniority, costing the city an estimated $98 million annually.

“The impact would financially cripple the city and force layoffs and cutbacks to services,” Benton said. “The mayor believes it is not prudent at this time to hire additional city of Houston employees, who would lose their jobs as a result of the election.”

The firefighters union repeatedly has said Turner is attacking their parity proposal by creating a fake budget crisis and engaging in scare tactics with his threats of widespread layoffs.

“Like the police, firefighters deserve competitive pay. People in Houston understand this,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. “If he (the mayor) is truly willing to destabilize public safety and hurt all city employees so he can further punish firefighters, that raises some troubling questions.”

That $98 million figure also will rise, Turner acknowledged, if the city council ratifies a new contract he negotiated with police officers giving them 7 percent raises over the next two years.

Turner said the proposed police raises would make Proposition B cost “significantly more” than the $98 million annual figure he has used, but he did not provide an updated figure. The cumulative two-year cost of the proposed police raises, which the officers ratified last week, is $53 million: The proposed 4 percent raise in 2019 would cost $18.6 million in each year, and the 3 percent raise in 2020 would cost $15.5 million.

Turner said he had considered shelving the police talks until after the November vote, but ultimately decided he couldn’t put the city “on hold.”

Turner acknowledged, however, the tension between his often-repeated desire to grow the police force and his decision to grant existing officers raises, thus adding to the cost of a referendum he says will force layoffs, including, potentially, of police officers.

“That’s the dilemma. This referendum cannot paralyze the city. I still have to govern,” Turner said. “Why should we vote on anything moving forward knowing that it’s going to cost? Why not just stop having city council meetings and wait until Nov. 6? Does that make sense?”

mike.morris@chron.com

twitter.com/mmorris011

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