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?