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!

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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!

…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!