The feud between Houston firefighters and Mayor Sylvester Turner over pay raises, benefits and retirement security is far from reaching a truce.
In the latest chapter of the saga, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association delivered more than 52,000 signatures to City Hall Monday, demanding that the city place an equal-pay initiative for firefighters on the November ballot. The firefighters are asking that they receive the same pay as police officers who hold the same rank, a request they have been making for some time.
"The petition drive was necessary because Houston firefighters are at a breaking point," said Patrick M. "Marty" Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. "Our fleet and facilities are declining. Our wages, benefits and working conditions are no longer competitive. We are losing firefighters to other departments. We are now asking the voters to help Houston firefighters because the city refuses to do so."
David Feldman, former city attorney who is now working with the firefighters, said that all of these signatures were collected in just week, surpassing the minimum petition requirements by more than 50 percent. More than 32,000 signatures have been verified as belonging to registered voters. Feldman said the feat appeared unprecedented in such a short period of time.
The petition drive comes less than a month after the Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund sued the City of Houston over Turner's proposed pension reform that was approved by the Texas Legislature, changes the firefighters said would cut into the pension reform immensely and unfairly. A judge dismissed the lawsuit.
From pension to pay raises to new equipment, Turner has repeatedly said that firefighters are asking too much from a financially strapped city, a sentiment he conveyed yet again in a statement Monday.
Turner said the firefighters do deserve a pay raise, but said the union's initial demands of 21 percent and then 17 percent were simply too high.
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"The City, hoping to end the impasse with the [firefighters], offered 9.5%, which will stretch the city's financial capability," Turner said in his written statement. "The Association turned down that offer and continues to demand what the city cannot pay. Now the Association is asking voters to sign a petition calling for parity between police and fire. But their structures and benefits are very different."
Turner charged that those differences include the number of days they work per month, command staff structure, overtime pay and benefits — essentially that the firefighters are asking for equal pay in an apples to oranges situation. He said that if voters were to approve what the firefighters are asking for, the city would be plunged into financial instability.
"What they are asking voters to sign is ill-defined and making the most simplistic assumptions could cost the city more than $40M," he said. "That would force the city to schedule layoffs in all department areas or further delay maintenance on buildings and purchase schedules for much needed equipment. The City appreciates and respects every fire fighter, but the demands of their union leadership will financially cripple the City, absent removing the revenue cap and a further tax increase."
Asked at the press conference how the union expects the city to pay for it, Feldman said it was premature to speculate about what the costs would be, and declined to discuss any potential bargains the firefighters might make with the city to settle the dispute. Lancton, the union's president, said this is an issue that needs to be left to the voters.