Mike Morris at the Houston Chronicle presents a longform article on the Houston Fire Department budget, specifically how the budget is being strained at this moment by allegedly excessive overtime payments. The story reeks of at least a mild slant –some may even go as far as calling it a ‘hit piece’– but nonetheless serves an important purpose in exemplifying both the tense relationship between HFD & the City, and the finances of the fire department.
As I understand the current controversy, the issue predominantly revolves around about $8Million in overtime pay charged to the department. Given the fact that, as the Chronicle article notes, 92% of the department budget is salaries, this overtime pay was hard to offset. Terry Garrison, the Fire Chief, has previously stated that the department would attempt to fix the issues caused by the unexpected expenditures by cutting some administrative posts and severely curtailing certain training programs (specifically those for prospective paramedics).
The unexpected overtime costs were directly connected to an uber-powerful union contract the firefighters have against the City, which prohibits common sense regulations such as limiting the number of firefighters who take off on any one day. Most all of the overtime pay occurred as a direct result of just a few weekends when a plethora of firefighters would take time off. Another fact, by the Chronicle’s own admission, is that the department is both understaffed and underpaid for a City of Houston’s size.
Still, the revelation that the Fire Department’s budget would be bigger-than-projected caused some members of the Houston City Council to go livid. Councilmember Dave Martin, an important figure in the upcoming HFD pension negotiations, did not have kind words for the department. “The way to address this, in my opinion, is to keep track of the monthly financial report, and the minute they step over their budget, you vote against everything anyone brings forward within that department. That’s how you maintain budget integrity,” Martin said.
I am typically not a big fan of union busting, but there are always exceptions to the rule. Most notably with the pensions, but also with these issues over overtime pay, the HFD Union has been simply unreasonable time and time again. As I have previously stated, negotiations should certainly continue to such a calm consensus, but –if those fall through– I otherwise have no qualms over Parker bringing down the hammer.