HFD brownouts anyways

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.

Click here to read more!

Brownout agreement reached

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!

HFD union sues City

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!

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!

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!

HOPE endorses Parker

Ok, the “phony scandal” is officially dead.

The Houston Chronicle reports that HOPE, the Houston Organization of Public Employees (the municipal employee union covering all those city servants outside of HPD and HFD), has endorsed Annise Parker for re-election. This is a huge endorsement, as her main opponent, Ben Hall, had previously tried to make an issue out of her alleged tepid support for municipal workers.

Longtime followers of Municipal politics will remember that HOPE –which typically endorses exclusively Democratic candidates– supported Annise Parker in 2009. From what I understand, the union declined to endorse anyone in 2011, simply opting to make selections in City Council elections. I have left a message with HOPE to confirm this fact, however.

The union also endorsed other candidates this afternoon, including Ronald Green, Stephen Costello, Andrew Burks, Roland Chavez, C.O. Bradford, Jerry Davis, Ed Gonzalez, Mike Laster and Larry Green. Accordingly, they opted to not make selections in AL5, as well as Districts A, D, F, G and I. Ellen Cohen and Dave Martin were specifically snubbed from getting a nod, despite running unopposed.

The endorsement is –and I will say this multiple times– is a huge blow for Hall’s campaign. Hall had been walking a fine line, attempting to run simultaneously to the left and to the right of Parker. While he espoused many somewhat fiscally conservative ideas that made him a big hit at the Pachyderm Club, the real prize would be going after those on the left –specifically the unions– by cozying up to the Firefighter’s Union, followed by HOPE. That is why Hall’s response to the ‘phony scandal’ could have mattered so much more.

Without the monolithic support of the unions, Hall is left in a delicate, dangerous position. At this point, he is getting perilously close to his core supporters: Establishment Republicans, prominent African-Americans and the Firefighters. That doesn’t really make up more than about a quarter of the electorate, especially once you factor in how many African-Americans will vote for Parker. I tend to believe that number has been underestimated thus far. Any move to go further right (and therefore snatch votes from Dick) would alienate his African-American base even more.

Hall now faces a daunting task, while Parker’s job keeps getting easier. No longer will Hall be able to bring up “the 747” [laid off workers], for the Mayor has atoned, and been forgiven, for the move. The Mayor’s opponent will need to find another card to bring to the table.

Hall endorsed by Firefighters’ Union

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For some reason, Dr Hall’s campaign still doesn’t recognize our legitimacy. The HPFFA (Houston Professional Firefighters’ Association) has endorsed Ben Hall in a recent announcement. Although fake Ben Hall had broken the news on Friday, the official announcement did not come out until today. From a press release (THAT WE DID NOT GET):

“The women and men of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association voted to support Ben Hall in the upcoming mayoral election. We believe Mr. Hall will better balance the needs of public and firefighter safety with fiscal responsibility. Mr. Hall believes in fair play and has the better vision to lead Houston into the future.

“The time has come to end Annise Parker’s three-year campaign against Houston firefighters. Aware of our top rating among city departments, we work hard to maintain the citizens’ trust, but the mayor’s antagonistic management style wastes city resources, damages our nationally recognized fire department’s reputation locally, and threatens to undermine the long-term financial security of firefighter families.

“Houston deserves a mayor who appreciates that Houston firefighters strive to deliver excellent service, be good stewards of city resources, and give back to the community. Ben Hall will be that mayor.”

Looks like the Firefighters still bear a lot of resentment for Parker firing Phil Boriskie all those years ago. As many people have previously noted, the Firefighters’ Union does not have a lot of sway in elections. They endorsed Fernando “14 percent” Herrera in 2011. This really is not, however, the “game changer” Hall had announced it to be. This was a given.

What probably was a little more interesting was that Bob Ryan, a prominent local attorney, was featured on Hall’s Facebook was an endorser. Immediately, and embarrassingly, Ryan called the Hall campaign out. “Unfortunately, this photo is incorrect. I am not endorsing Ben Hall for Mayor,” Ryan stated. Oops. Possibly worse, Hall did not immediately change his page. Brains and Eggs has the full story on the Ben Hall drama.

In the other side’s news, Annise Parker has gotten some recent endorsements of her own. She was endorsed by the Building Owners and Management Association, as well as the Lesbian PAC. Unlike her opponent, Parker’s campaign emailed me the press releases. Score for Annise! One high profile conservative group and one liberal group. In an interesting twist, Mayor Parker has also been advertising her strong opposition to SB5 and all that anti-abortion mumbo jumbo. Like I have been saying, Parker has taken off the gloves–she is unapologeticly liberal. We’ll see how it goes.