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Turner delays first step to Prop B legal challenge

November 7, 2018

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said he would delay by two weeks a City Council vote to hire a law firm to represent the city in possible litigation over Proposition B, the ballot item passed by voters to grant Houston firefighters pay parity with police.

City Council had been set to consider a contract with Norton Rose Fulbright for $1.3 million. The contract would set aside $250,000 for the firm to handle litigation over real estate purchases in connection with infrastructure projects, with the rest set aside for a court fight over the parity measure approved Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Turner said he will look to Fire Chief Samuel Peña to restructure the fire department to absorb the measure’s additional cost, which both Turner and City Controller Chris Brown say will total more than $100 million in its first full year.

Turner said Wednesday he does not know “how we’re going to pay for it,” but he made clear initial layoffs would come from the fire department. For months, Turner has warned that the city would need to make cuts if voters approved Proposition B. It passed with 59 percent of the vote.

The measure would grant tie firefighters’ pay to that of police of corresponding rank and seniority.

“I don’t know the answers,” Turner said. “I don’t know how we’re going to balance the books when we have been given an added bill of $100 million each year.”

He added: “The tough decisions start now. They start right now.”

The mayorsaid the fire department “restructuring” would include a reduction from four shifts to three, as well as other methods of reducing costs.

Shortly before Turner’s announcement, District G Councilman Greg Travis noted the poor optics of bringing on legal help the morning after the election.

“Right now, it looks like we’re giving the middle finger to the voters,” he said.

Members of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association have questioned why the city did not propogate what president Marty Lancton has called a “phony, manufactured budget crisis” when raising policy pay by more than 30 percent since 2011.

City officials have said the police raises triggered no budget crisis because they were implemented incrementally.

The union also has questioned the accuracy of the city’s cost estimate, but has not offered a figure of its own.

Even without the cost of the parity measure, city finance officials expect to face a general fund budget deficit of at least $92 million in the fiscal year that begins next July.

Some council members were sympathetic to the city’s challenge. District B Councilman Jerry Davis said people may have voted with “emotion” without understanding Prop B’s impact on city budget.

District E Councilman Dave Martin said the fire department should continue to operate with its enacted $500 million budget. If firefighters have to endure layoffs, cuts in EMS services and consolidating stations, “so be it,” Martin said.

jasper.scherer@chron.com

twitter.com/jaspscherer

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