Everybody’s a critic

A few days ago, I wrote about the upcoming brownouts at the Fire Department. At that time, the Council Budget Committee voted on a non-binding resolution to idle certain trucks and force the HFD to solve a ballooning deficit solely from their own coffers. This deficit was largely created by a flood of overtime pay in just a couple of big holiday weekends. Critics charge a favorable union contract for the deficit.

Now, Mayor Parker has announced that she will go forward with implementing the Committee’s resolution. The brownouts will begin soon and follow through to the end of the fiscal year (the end of June). As Off the Kuff notes, one of the bigger critics of this strategy is Councilmember C.O. Bradford, who has long been both sympathetic to the firefighters and unfriendly towards the Mayor’s platform and agenda. However, the Parker/Bradford dichotomy is a drastic oversimplification of the real politics of the issue. Also disagreeing with Mayor Parker on the issue has been Mayor Pro Tem Ed Gonzalez, a typical ally of the administration.

Click here to read more on this issue, including some surprising comments from a State Senator!

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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.

Click here to read about what the Committee did!

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.

Click here to read the full article!

Parker sues HFD Pensions

The Houston Chronicle reports that Mayor Parker has sued the Firefighter’s Union Pension system in order to throw out an obscure state law that binds the hands of the municipality in dealing with pension negotiations. The law, passed in the 1997 session of the State Legislature, deprives the City of Houston of local negotiating authority against the Firefighter’s union. It also requires Houston to make a full contribution to the fund, something not required of its Police Officer pension plan or its Municipal Employee pension plan. Neither of these restrictions apply to any other metropolitan area in the State, only Houston.

Over the past two legislative sessions, Parker has worked tirelessly to convince the Legislature to repeal or otherwise alter the law, thus allowing “meet and confer” conferences between Firefighter’s Unions and the Mayoral administration. The Legislature has not budged, so today the Mayor took matters into her own hands. The City is suing the pension in State District Court, arguing that the law governing the pensions is arbitrary and capriciously, thus unconstitutional. “We’re trying to force negotiations,” Parker said, making the point repeatedly that this was not about screwing the Firefighter’s –especially already retired ones– out of their earned benefits. Rather, it is about making sure the City does not follow the same path as Detroit.

Click here to read more!

…Nevermind! Garrison will not resign

A couple of weeks ago, HFD Chief Terry Garrison announced that he would resign at the end of the year. He cited personal reasons that required a return to his native Phoenix, not political disagreements with the administration. Garrison, who was officially conferred the position in August of 2010, is the only official Fire Chief to have served during the Parker administration. Longtime chief Phil Boriskie resigned shortly after Parker took office, and Rick Flanagan became the Acting Chief in the roughly 20 month interim.

Now, the Houston Chronicle reports that Garrison will not be moving after all. The original move had been prompted by the ailing health of his young grandchild. Now, Garrison and his family have decided that the entire family should relocate to Houston, which fortuitously is the location of the best children’s hospital in the country with the Texas Medical Center (My brother, who works for Children’s Hospital Boston, may beg to differ).

Click here to read more about Garrison’s decision!

One question, Mayor…

…just what will you do with another two years?

TheEconomist

The Houston Chronicle poses this question after examining the initial celebratory nature of Mayor Annise Parker’s re-election. Mike Morris at the Chronicle sat down with Parker and discussed the serious issues that Parker plans to bring up for the remainder of her time as Mayor. What is most surprising, however, is just how quickly she wishes for many of these agenda items to be discussed and voted on by the City Council.

Click here to see what issues and when!

More on pensions

The Houston Chronicle continues to discuss the pensions issue that has arisen over public employees pensions throughout this municipal election season. As the astute may recall, I am somewhat dubious as to how big of an imminent crisis this all really is. I have written before that pension reform is often a way to needlessly cut government expenses. Anyways, Mike Morris at the Chronicle continues reporting on this topic.

The article does not introduce very much new information into the topic, briefly outlining the positions on the issue of both Mayor Parker and Ben Hall. Where Morris strikes new ground is in talking with City Councilmember Stephen Costello, who chairs the main fiscal committee. Costello told the Chronicle, on the pension issues, “It’s not the issue of ’30 years from now’. The issue is how we get from here to 30 years from now. That’s the problem we can’t afford.”

Costello then went on to discuss that an ideal solution would be a tax increase or benefit cut. It appears Costello, the moderate Republican, has no aspirations for partisan office with a comment like that…uttering the dreaded “T word.” Costello does mention, however, the possibility of layoffs if neither of the ideal solutions are adhered thereto.

What is most telling, however, is Costello (or Parker) failing to set any sort of timeline on the issue. I would think, then, their intent is to kick the can down the road for two more years, when both of them are out of City Hall. Pensions, it would seem, are just a flashpoint issue in this campaign in an attempt to assuage the concerns of fiscally conservative voters interest groups & donors.