The Houston Chronicle reported yesterday that the first long-dreaded brownouts of the Houston Fire Department’s service have begun. As the astute may recall, an agreement was ostensibly reached some three weeks ago that averted such an issue, which was first caused by too many unannounced absences among the firefighters. As I have explained ad nauseum in the past, this is largely thanks to an overgenerous union contract that allows most firefighters to receive paid leave without much of an eye or upper bound as to how many people are taking off. Accordingly, especially during major holidays, the department was swamped by ballooning payroll expenses, thus putting them over budget.
The original solution to this issue was simply pulling fire trucks out of commission until the end of the fiscal year, which is the halfway point of the year. However, after much posturing, Mayor Parker and the Firefighter’s Union came to an agreement wherein the firefighters would receive a meager pay hike in exchange for constricting many of the conventions used to take off time on paid leave. The other major provision was that, provided there were no more than 36 unannounced absences in a particular day, brownouts would not occur. However, on Friday, 42 unannounced absences occurred.
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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.
Click here to read more about an agreement reached!
UPDATE: Further hearing on the matter is set for March 7th.
The Houston Chronicle reports that the Houston Fire Department’s union (Local 341) has sued the City over the recent brownouts in coverage going around the City. Last Thursday, a Council Committee voted to compel the Fire Department into managing a large budget deficit (predominantly caused by excessive overtime pay through a generous union contract) through their own means. Accordingly, after Mayor Parker gave the nod to this course of action, the Fire Department announced they would begin rolling blackouts of service throughout the city, grounding ambulances for example, such as what happened this weekend.
Today at noon, the Firefighter’s Union sought a temporary restraining order from Judge Elaine Palmer (215th Civil District Court), which was then summarily denied. City Attorney David Feldman, Houston’s key counsel on legal issues, laughed off the suit as frivolous, proclaiming “This is not what the courthouse is for.”
Rather than Chief Terry Garrison, who must retain some semblance of a working relationship with Mayor Parker, this push has largely been driven by Bryan Sky-Eagle, the Firefighter’s Union President. In comments first reported by KPRC, Sky-Eagle noted he believed this would be an ongoing effort, albeit he made his comments before Judge Palmer denied his request for a temporary restraining order.
Click here to read more, including a statement by Mayor Parker!
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!
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!
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!
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.
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