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City Controller: Fire pay ‘parity’ cheaper than Turner says, but still ‘unsustainable’

October 3, 2018

The cost of Houston firefighters’ push for pay parity with police of corresponding rank and seniority could be 14 percent cheaper than what Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration has estimated, city Controller Chris Brown said Tuesday.

Brown’s office estimates that the proposal, which will appear as Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot, will cost $85.2 million a year, lower than the $98.6 million figure Turner has used. Neither estimate includes the 7 percent raise police would receive over the next two years if the city council approves a new proposed contract this week. That would increase the cost if voters decide to link fire and police salaries.

Brown acknowledged his analysis required a series of assumptions related to how the parity proposal would be implemented, and said the estimate shows the cost of the proposal would be “unsustainable.”

DISCUSSION: Turner, Lancton to debate firefighter ‘pay parity’ at forum

“The controller’s office believes that a sustainable solution exists but can only be achieved through negotiation in the collective bargaining process,” Brown said while presenting his estimate to the city council’s budget committee. “It’s through that process that the men and women of HFD should be able to negotiate a well-deserved raise, but also a well-deserved raise the city can actually afford over the long term.”

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton viewed Brown’s analysis as vindication of his view that Turner’s estimate is inflated.

“As the city controller proved today, the mayor’s Proposition B claims cannot be trusted. His math, like his judgment, is driven by an obsession with punishing Houston firefighters,” Lancton said.

Not including the current proposal to give police 7 percent raises over two years, officers have seen their salaries rise 30 percent in the last seven years while firefighters have received a 3 percent raise. Firefighters voted down a 4 percent raise under former mayor Annise Parker and did not accept a 9.5 percent offer from Turner, though they say the former deal was undercut by steep increases in health premiums and that the latter was offered in bad faith after talks had broken down.

Turner, for his part, said Brown’s estimate would trigger the same layoffs and service cuts he has said will occur if Prop. B passes.

“It’s fine to have an opinion and horrible for the union to distort the truth of what took place at a public meeting,” Turner said. “Fact: The controller said today that the city cannot afford the costs of Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot.”

Brown and Turner’s estimates are nearly identical on the projected increase to firefighters’ base salaries and the associated increase in retirement benefits: that roughly 20 percent increase would cost about $65 million per year.

The two estimates differ mostly on various incentives and allowances known as “special pays,” some of which firefighters receive now but which parity would increase, and some of which firefighters would receive for the first time if voters approve the measure.

The city finance department assumes these special pays will total about $29.5 million a year; Brown estimates the cost will be two-thirds of that figure. Brown also included no additional overtime cost, assuming that the city will cut every expense it can if the measure passes; Turner’s administration assumes higher base salaries will drive up overtime costs by $2.5 million.

Turner’s finance department also projected that extending “patrol pay” that officers get to firefighters who work in the fire suppression division would cost $7.1 million, while Brown pegs that figure at $2.5 million. Controller’s office spokesman Max Moll said the estimate was applied only to employees with the title of “firefighter,” not the engineer-operators and others who also respond to incidents in the field.

The controller’s office also interpreted the proposal as extending to firefighters the same clothing allowance they receive today, rather than estimating those payments to cost $1.9 million more on the assumption that they would match the allowances paid to police, as the city finance department did. Brown’s analysis also assumes fewer firefighters will participate in a mentoring incentive program that would be new to the department, cutting the cost estimate by $1.3 million as compared to the city finance department’s projections.

mike.morris@chron.com

twitter.com/mmorris011

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