The Houston Chronicle reports that Mayor Parker and the Houston Fire Department have reached a tentative agreement that would avert upcoming brownouts in fire service. The brownouts were thought to take effect after a City Council committee voted to not allocate any more money to HFD’s budget after they overspent following massive overtime pay (largely thanks to a generous union contract). The standoff was part of a broader disagreement of principles between Mayor Annise Parker and the Firefighter’s Union. Because of a sweetheart law, the union is mostly regulated from Austin, where they receive much nicer terms than the Police or Municipal Employees. Parker has been actively campaigning to nix this State control, thus allowing her to curtail some of the frills of their pension plan.
Recently, neither appeared to willing to budge on their position relating to this overtime/budget crisis. Parker was unwilling to spend more money on the department, while the union was unwilling to accept any sort of cut to their wages or benefits. Accordingly, it looked that the big loser would be the people of Houston, to whom would bear the brunt of diminished public safety.
This morning, Mayor Annise Parker and Bryan Sky-Eagle, the President of the Firefighter’s Union, announced that an agreement had been in the works for a few days to avert the brownouts. Most notably, the agreement eliminates guaranteed holidays throughout the end of the fiscal year (June 30th) in exchange for the City bailing out the HFD budget and the firefighters receiving an across-the-board 2% pay hike.
Additionally, the union will be responsible for making sure the number of firefighters taking off on any specific day does not exceed 35. Otherwise, the City reserves the right to reintroduce these brownouts that will affect service.
Further provisions in the agreement lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive agreement between the City and the Firefighter Union on pension issues. They include changing the current lump sum payout for retiring firefighters to a four-year payout, as well as eliminating the District Vacation Bank, simplifying the procedures by which the firefighters would be able to take off.
Both the City Council and the rank-and-file of the Union membership must approve this deal. Since Sky-Eagle appears supportive, I simply cannot imagine too much blowback from the membership. Agree with his issues or not, one simply cannot deny how effective of an advocate Sky-Eagle has been for his constituency.
Now, getting support from the City Council is less of a forgone conclusion. I placed calls to Mayor Pro Tem Ed Gonzalez and Councilmembers Jerry Davis, Robert Gallegos & David Robinson, all of which were not returned by press time. I was able to obtain a statement from Councilmember Dwight Boykins, who (along with Gonzalez) was one of three individuals voting against the initial resolution that prompted the almost-brownouts.
“I am committed to advocating for public safety in District D,” Boykins said. “I am pleased we were able to avoid the removal of fire units through good faith efforts and I look forward to continued negotiations, which will prevent a crisis of this nature from occurring in the future.”
Boykins, though, did not pledge a position in the inevitable vote, though his conciliatory comments insinuate he will most likely be supportive. I will update if I receive any response from other Councilmembers’ offices.