Despite weeks of outcry, the push by Houston firefighters to put equal pay with police officers on the November ballot will not be coming to fruition, as the deadline for City Hall to validate the petition has elapsed.
The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association had collected roughly 52,000 signatures in nine days in July, saying more than 30,000 were from verified registered voters in Houston. But as the clock dwindled in August and the city secretary's office still had not begun verifying the signatures themselves, the firefighters union claimed Mayor Sylvester Turner, who opposes the equal-pay initiative, was trying to sabotage the petition by letting the time run out. It is an accusation that the mayor's office has denied.
In an open letter to other union members released Monday, HPFFA President Marty Lancton issued some more strong words for the mayor, saying it was because of the "petulance of Mayor Sylvester Turner" that equal pay between firefighters and police of equal ranks will not be on the ballot.
"As our fight goes on and we regroup on the ballot fight, we also will ensure that Houston voters learn the truth about the looming threats to public safety caused by the mayor’s neglect of HFD and its people," Lancton wrote. "While the mayor flits around the world on dubious trade junkets and floats public safety bond proposals that deserve closer scrutiny, the HFD fleet and facilities decline. So does the morale of Houston’s 4,000 firefighters. The truth is, the city repeatedly made Houston police pay more competitive. Firefighters too have earned fair wages, benefits and working conditions."
Lancton said he had offered the city financial assistance verifying the signatures if it needed to pay more employees for overtime (the mayor's office accused him of an ethical violation and asked the city attorney to open an investigation; the city attorney concluded no action was necessary). Former KTRK reporter Wayne Dolcefino's consulting firm also offered help, and Lancton said at least two council members offered district resources; but "the mayor smugly ignored the offers and the City Council took no action on the issue," Lancton wrote.
City Secretary Anna Russell, who has held her post for 45 years, said earlier this month that her office could not begin verifying signatures on the firefighters union petition because it hadn't finished verifying a petition submitted in April related to pension reform, filed by an outside political group, Texans for Local Control. Alan Bernstein, spokesman for the mayor, maintained that Mayor Turner had no influence in this process, saying she has always verified petitions in the order they're received.
The Texans for Local Control petition, which called for 401(k)-style pensions for city employees and which neither the local police union nor the Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund supported, will not be on the November ballot either. (If it were, it would have contradicted the pension reform that the Texas Legislature passed this session and that Mayor Turner championed.)
Lancton told the Houston Press that the union will continue to fight for equal pay, hoping that the petition will appear on the next election ballot, in May. "Whether or not the mayor chooses to allow democracy to continue in the City of Houston, the reality is that there is a May election that the petition would go on," Lancton said. "It is our firm belief that the mayor has intentionally stalled this out because it doesn't fit with his agenda. We think it's extremely sad."
Bernstein said that the pay parity between police and firemen was simply beyond the city's financial capability.
“If the city could buy new equipment for every police officer, every firefighter, every lawn care worker at the park, it would right now, but it can't afford that, nor can it afford a runaway pay increase that the firefighters are looking for," Bernstein said. "And on the parity issue, the mayor has said the police and fire departments are two different jobs. One is not more valuable than the other. But their hours are [different]. Their classifications are. Their supervisory structures are. All of those affect pay. All of them.
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Bernstein pointed to the$495 million bond package that includes some funds for Houston Fire Department equipment upgrades, plus funds for pension reform. Come November, voters will be asked to approve $1 billion in pension funds for city employees, as part of Turner's strategy to solve the pension crisis. They will also be asked to approve the $495 million bond package that is divided into four key areas: projects for improving libraries, parks and rec, general city infrastructure needs and public safety needs for the police and fire departments.
Within the bond package, $54 million would go toward replacing the Houston Fire Department's aging fleet — but Lancton said this is only scratching the surface.
"Infrastructure needs are extremely needed within the City of Houston, but public safety and first responders should be a priority, and $54 million doesn't get us anywhere close to it," Lancton said.
Lancton said that in the past week, two rescue trucks have been out of commission as they undergo repairs. Chevy Suburbans took their place temporarily, he said.