Fire Department brownouts

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that ballooning overtime pay had occurred at the Houston Fire Department. This excessive overtime arrangement, wherein (because of an overly generous union contract) there was no cap on many firefighters could take off on a given day, saw a great deal of expenditures allocated to overtime on a small number of weekends. This, along with other factors, caused the Fire Department’s budget to be way over the mark. Accordingly, the Houston City Council’s Budget Committee met today to discuss ways to cut costs in HFD for the remainder of the City’s fiscal year (roughly four months). Since most of the department’s expenses are personnel costs protected by the union contract, the Committee had to come up with somewhat drastic solutions to this problem.

First, the committee discussed the idea of paying the department’s deficit –estimated at around $10.5 Million– out of pocket, given that the municipality has seen extra tax money in its coffers. But the Chairman of the committee, Councilmember Stephen Costello, was quite tepid on the subject, saying “I’m not real sure that there are enough votes on council to just arbitrarily give them $8 million.” Mayor Annise Parker, meanwhile, was far tougher. “They managed their way into the problem; they can manage their way out,” she said.

Accordingly, a new idea was formulated by the committee. Of course, Council committees cannot unilaterally create laws, so the most the committee accomplished this morning was to pass a non-minding resolution. The drastic plan proposed would create rolling brownouts of fire service around the City. In comments to the City Council, Fire Chief Terry Garrison noted such a plan would realistically require a 10% cut in personnel through the end of June.

The committee (at least those present) voted 7-3 in favor of this non-binding resolution. Costello voted in favor, as did Pension Subcommittee Chair Dave Martin. Councilmembers Jack Christie, Robert Gallegos, Michael Kubosh, Richard Nguyen and David Robinson were also supportive. Against the measure were Councilmembers Dwight Boykins and Brenda Stardig, as well as Mayor Pro Tem Ed Gonzalez.

Gonzalez specifically expressed concern over the reduced service of the Fire Department and how it might adversely affect the safety of the community. While he maintained his desire for a more comprehensive solution to be forged on this issue, he believed this proposal was not adequate.

I voted no today because the strongest comment I heard [from Fire Chief Terry Garrison] is that this resolution could directly impact the safety of our firefighters and the safety of our communities,” Gonzalez said. “It is still my hope that we can find the necessary savings within HFD’s budget and/or other revenue sources prior to the end of the fiscal year; I support budget integrity.”

There is not especially a schedule on when or if the whole Council will discuss this matter, but for opponents of the proposal, the prognosis looks bleak. With 16 members of the City Council plus the Mayor, a majority of 9 is required for major actions. Assuming a major change of heart does not occur, the proposal already has seven supporters and likely has the backing of the Mayor as well. This would mean, from the remaining six Councilmembers, only one would need to be supportive of the resolution. Among the Councilmembers omitted from today’s vote was the fiercely conservative Oliver Pennington.

What do you think of this proposal?

6 thoughts on “Fire Department brownouts

  1. Noah, suffice it to say you’re not portraying yourself as a real “journalist” via your blog. However, I’d imagine you’d entertain the idea that, as a contributor to a major, nationally known college paper, you have to do a little digging.

    This “overly generous” contract you speak of does indeed have limits on the use of benefit time – holiday, vacation, sick time, etc. For example, I’m allotted the use of two 24 hour holidays a year. I actually accrue holidays at a rate faster than I’m allowed to use them. Undoubtedly, as the city has done in the past and currently does, they will fight tooth and nail not to pay me for the holidays whenever I approach retirement. Additionally, they won’t allow me to use them more than twice a year. As you can see, the city wants to have its cake and eat it too.

    Further examples of restrictions on holiday time include receiving my guarantee I have the time off occurs 4 days before the day I want off. This makes it of limited use if I actually want to plan for said day. Want a Saturday off for your sister’s wedding on Saturday? We’ll let you know Tuesday afternoon! In addition, no more than 15% of manpower in a specific rank on a district level may take a holiday. So, if I have 15 firefighters in my district no more than 2.25, or 2, can be off on a holiday at the same time. Lastly, no holidays are allowed on “premium holidays” which are New Years Day, July 4th, Christmas Eve, and Christmas.

    These restrictions have been around since I entered the department. What DID change temporarily was a restriction on holidays in the months of June, July, August, November, and December. That is to say, no holidays were granted. The union agreed to this in the wake of the economic downturn in late 2008. This restriction ceased to be in effect as of July 2013 with the expiration of our contract.

    Currently, the CoH is in contract negotiations with Local 341. I’m not privy to the details nor would I broadcast them on the internet. What I can say is that HFD is the 3rd largest fire department in the country. It’s also, by far and away, one of the most efficient as we provide ALL EMS services along with hazardous materials, technical rescue, airport fire services, etc. Despite this, we are one of the worst paid both on a local level and national. Rankings change every year, but I know we are not in the top 100 for compensation. Firefighters in West University and Bellaire are better compensated than HFD.

    To bring it home, if I were to move back to Austin and work on AFD, I’d be compensated approximately 43% more. That’s an incredible disparity! Further blowing my mind is the fact that Houstonians enjoy fire protection from arguably the most aggressive major FD in the country. What this means is that citizens survive fires at a higher rate here BECAUSE of the skills, culture, and risks taken by Houston firefighters.

  2. This article is drastically inaccurate. Do some research in the contract you are mentioning and you will find out that the FIREFIGHTERS voted down a raise to keep firefighter jobs, which the mayor was threatening to cut, which would cause more overtime. This overtime issue isn’t about how many people take off at a given time, it is about a fire department being understaffed. Mayor Parker’s comment of “They managed their way into the problem; they can manage their way out” shows her personality clearly. Mayor Parker hired the Fire Chief who is making this proposal, and Mayor Parker is blaming it on the firefighters who declined a pay raise to keep jobs in 2011, keeping the fire department staffing numbers up. After Parker threatened brownouts in 2011, she started ‘finding’ money just laying all over the place like it was stashed in her sock drawer. So do some more research, Mr. Horowitz, because your efforts show laziness and has only put your credibility where your spell checker is, in the crapper.

  3. Noah,
    I understand your desire to take Parker’s side on this issue, she’s a liberal in charge of the largest city in the state and someone you admire. She appointed the Fire Chief and other leaders of the department and they couldn’t provide the same level of service with the resources at hand. The contract, a city ratified contract just as much as a “union” contract, expired the better part of a year ago. Instead of negotiating in good faith, the city sues HFD’s pension fund and attempts to make the union look like the bad guys time and again.

    Her hand picked managers could not figure out a solution that maintained the level of services the citizens expect. That is because the department is drastically short of manpower to maintain the level of services. If you want longer response times, less equipment available to address some of the many problems encountered, and are willing to let the department move from an aggressive fire fighting suppression strategy to one where they clean up afterwards, the citizens can save what amounts to pizza money over it. Of course they’ll be suing the city when HFD doen’t get to them in time or the insurance rating goes down but you can’t have it both ways.

    Laying off firefighters or cutting their numbers when the problem started with mismanagement is crazy. Blaming all the ills of the world on the employees who do the work makes no sense, a certain percentage are going to be sick or have sick children, or whatever, on a given day. This can lead to overtime which waylays budgets. Didn’t the mayor give all those fantastic, huge raises in recent years to her staffers based on city finances?

    None of the contracts in the last 30 years have been “overly generous” and none of them have even attempted to keep up with similar departments around the country. I suggest we try an experiment where the city does without HFD for a few days, a mandatory kind of decision making leave where every employee in the department if off for a weekend. Tally up the resulting numbers that ensue for loss of life and property; then tell the rank and file that they aren’t worth it with a straight face if you can.

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