In re HFD overtime

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.

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4 thoughts on “In re HFD overtime

  1. Several things bother me about your stance on this issue. Let me begin by stating that the issue of overtime is serious, as is the issue of the pension. I regret that the two issues here are seemingly melded. Calm heads are needed for two solutions, and melding the issues serves to emotionalize them. It will be hard enough without the stirring of the embers of melding and using language such as union busting. Clearly, your use of that phrase was evocative, and not helpful in any way.

    You, as does almost everyone unfamiliar with collective bargaining, seem to think that only the union was at the bargaining table. The bargained agreement is exactly that, an agreement, one made by the union and the city. It is not a “contract the firefighters have against the city.” It’s a contract the fire fighters has WITH the city. There is nothing unilateral about it. The contract, like all contacts, is binding. Heard of “contract law?” That doesn’t mean that the city can’t ask to re-open part or all of the contract. But I can predict quick failure if saber rattling is noticed by either party.

    As for the pensions, smarter people than I must sit down and look for the common interests the city has with the firefighters. This will have to happen with a team from each, preferably with a trained neutral facilitator. The over time issue should be a little easier to solve. One thing at a time.

    I would prefer you had done a little homework on bargaining before taking such a militant stand. And I would have preferred you had counseled for calm heads and honest searches for remedies that will meet each parties core needs.

    And remember please that we progressives believe in unions and what they do for our country, especially the middle class. We DON’T union bust.

    • The phrase was definitely intended to be rather evocative, that tends to be my confrontational style on these sorts of things.

      I think a thorough reading of the article would allow any reasonably minded person –such as yourself– to obviously know I do not literally want to bust the union. Hyperbolic phrase, no doubt.

      The point of the argument is that things need to change with respect to the current union contract. My point is definitely not that overtime should be eliminated, just that more steps should be taken to ensure it is minimized.

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  3. What “pension” negotiations? The firefighters don’t have to negotiate! Its a well functioning pension that if messed with will end up like many of the other pensions in and around our country. The HFRRF is privately run and they intend on keeping it that way! The mayor has unsuccessfully attempted to gain control in two separate legislative sessions. The pension is separate from the contract and has absolutely nothing to do with the union. If you want facts check out http://www.hfrrf.org/HFRRF/templates/public-content.aspx?id=2577. The most recent lawsuit by the mayor is her hail mary attempt to gain control as her political career ends! The overtime issue is something the city knew was coming over 5 years ago and did nothing to prepare for it in the mean time. The blame should be placed on the elected officials that allowed this to happen and the out of town chief who was appointed by the mayor not on the backs of firefighters. HFD is the 3rd largest fire department in the nation and doesn’t even break into the top 150 when it comes to compensation. As our city grows and expands one would think so would our fire department, however very little has been done over past 5 years in regards to implementing additional units and stations to compensate for our exploding population! With our booming economy one would think our mayor would be trying to find ways to better our city not place the public and firefighters safety at risk!

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