If you haven’t heard about the vote, go drive around the area and look for the bright signs imploring you to support firefighters. Or, next time Mayor Sylvester Turner opens his mouth, listen to him plead with you to reject the ballot item, lest the walls of our city come tumbling down.
Let’s start with a simplistic description of Proposition B, just so we all know the facts: Houston firefighters want to be paid the same as Houston police officers. Meanwhile, if the city is forced to give the Houston Fire Department the raises they want, the city says the increased costs will push us over the edge. In an op-ed piece, Turner sounded the alarm:
“The cuts would mean layoffs of nearly 1,000 municipal employees – including police officers and firefighters – and cutbacks to vital city services,” he wrote in the Chronicle.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it?
Meanwhile, HFD says its employees have been treated unfairly, and their argument makes sense. Starting back in the early 2000s, HPD, Houston’s municipal workers and the HFD all started negotiating their employment contracts separately. Before that, according to one-time mayoral candidate Bill King, these three groups of workers all stuck together and negotiated with, basically, the same voice.
But a change happened around 2001, when negotiations started happening independently. HPD and city workers negotiated a larger salary increase while telling the city they didn’t want as much funding in their pensions. Meanwhile, HFD broke ranks and said they didn’t want as much of a salary hike, as long as they got to keep the full benefits of their pension.
Let’s make that even more simple: HPD and city workers all said, “Pay us now.” HFD said, “Pay us later.”
Each group of employees had the right to negotiate whatever they wanted, but what happened next literally broke the city of Houston.
Pension costs got out of control. I’ve made no secret about how poorly I think ex-Mayor Annise Parker managed this city. She kicked buckets of problems down the road, left others to deal with them, and spent all her time focused on personal agendas and cultural caveats. She refused to deal with the pension problem, both as the city’s comptroller and then as our mayor.
Turner inherited the headache, and it’s important for us to understand the enormity of the strain of the pension plan, because it directly impacts Proposition B. Stick with me.
When the city renegotiated the pensions with police, municipal workers and the fire department, police and city workers came to an agreement. Meanwhile, the firefighters, who had agreed to less salary in exchange for better retirement, refused to negotiate on the pension.
Turner and the city did the only thing they could and went to the Texas Legislature, asking them to help solve the problem. The city simply couldn’t fulfill its obligation for any of the pensions. Our city didn’t have the money, mainly because voters approved a revenue cap in 2004 that limits the amount of revenue Houston can collect from property taxes.
Two things happened with the pensions. First, voters approved a bond that made good on what the city renegotiated with police and municipal workers. That’s our tax money, and we’re now paying for those reduced pensions.
Firefighters, meanwhile, had their pensions reduced by elected officials in Austin. They didn’t get money from the bond issues, and their decision to forego salary for the past two decades to get more in retirement backfired. They ended up getting the worst on both ends of the stick. What once seemed fiscally responsible turned into a loss of annual pay AND a loss in their retirement benefits.
Can you blame the firefighters for their anger? Imagine if you worked at a company and they said you had two options: Make $50,000 a year for 20 years and we’ll put $1 million in retirement, or make $75,000 in salary and we’ll put $500,000 in retirement.
What the firefighters did (this is only an example) is they took the $50,000 salary, and now they’re left with the $500,000 in retirement.
Here’s the sad (if not a little humorous) side of things – you know, beyond the firefighters getting a bad deal.
Mayor Turner, as staunch a Democrat as you’ll find, is fighting the core of Democratic voters. He’s taking on the unions, which almost always support Democrats.
Most Democrats, as we know, support equal pay. Democrats want the government to fund as much as possible. But in this case, Turner is breaking ranks with his own party, and he’s relying on very conservative groups to support him in his battle.
What’s worse is Turner is now pitting police against firefighters. This, he must believe, is his only avenue to winning support.
So you want to know who I support in this? Well, nobody is right and nobody is wrong, unfortunately. The city of Houston can’t afford the 25 percent pay increase firefighters want – assuming we aren’t wasting $90 million on other projects. Turner, as the CEO of this city, is absolutely doing the right thing by opposing something the city can’t afford.
If I were in Turner’s shoes, I’d be fighting the same battle. With limited revenues, and departments all over the city that need more funding, I’d argue like mad that we can’t pay for a huge increase. Sure, there may be a bit of hyperbole in Turner’s warnings, but there’s a very good chance many of our barely noticeable city services will be reduced even more if Proposition B passes.
As ironic as it sounds, Turner is acting about as Republican as a person can in this case.
But if I’m a firefighter in this city, I’m going to court because I conceded on a salary based on the promise that I’d get more in my pension. The city of Houston promised more in retirement for paying less in salary. And now these same firefighters have lost on the front end and the back end.
If you want the city to keep most of its services, and if you want to limit cuts across Houston’s many departments, you should vote against Prop B. If you believe firefighters got a raw deal, you should vote Yes on Prop B.
Then again, no matter how you vote, this issue will make its next stop in the court system.