Houston firefighters would give up some of their ability to schedule time off in return for a pay hike under a tentative new labor contract that city officials hope will enable them to rein in overtime costs that threatened to bust the fire department’s budget this year.
The City Council and the membership of Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 must ratify the agreement for it to take effect as planned on July 1.
The agreement, which includes a 4 percent raise, comes on the heels of a budget crisis that has seen the department, on some days, pull ambulances and fire trucks from the streets in recent months to control a spike in overtime costs.
Firefighters would get the 4 percent raise beginning Jan. 1, 2015, along with new terms encouraging them not to miss work, which often creates the need for shifts to be filled on short notice by replacements on overtime pay.
“Neither of us is really excited about what’s in the contract, but it moves us forward,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “It’s a workable arrangement. Neither side got everything they wanted.”
The deal would run through the end of 2016, though negotiations could reopen in February 2016 on pay and some scheduling items. The idea behind that option, City Attorney David Feldman said, is to see whether voters amend a decade-old cap on city revenue that Parker has said will force layoffs next year if left unaltered. The deal would last only 30 months because of these uncertainties, Parker said.
Fire union President Bryan Sky-Eagle said the raise is not what firefighters deserve, but he said the union acknowledges a need to work with the city given its revenue limitations.
The contract, Sky-Eagle added, also allows for more flexible scheduling, improves a voucher program by which firefighters buy uniforms and equipment, and secures city promises not to hand its emergency medical service over to private firms or to replace the firefighters running it with civilians.
“Am I going to say it’s the best deal for firemen? No. But am I going to say it’s the best deal we can get under this mayor, this administration? It’s about as fair as you can get,” Sky-Eagle said. “The incentive programs we have in place, we think they will work. We wouldn’t have signed off on this contract if we didn’t want to give them a shot because there’s some tangible benefits for the firefighters.”
Todd Clark, chairman of the Houston fire pension board, opposes the deal. The board and the union are separate, but historically, the union contract has allowed the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund chairman to be assigned full time to the pension office while drawing a city salary via the fire department.
That “special assignment” – at Parker’s insistence, Sky-Eagle and Clark said – has been dropped in the proposal. Deluca said the change means Clark would report to work at a fire station. Clark said he will do so, while doing pension work on his days off – if the agreement passes.
“By removing me, it gives the pension enemies – for instance Mayor Parker – an advantage on making changes to our plan,” Clark said. “She doesn’t want me here because I’ve worked the last two legislative sessions and defended and protected the fund from her attacks. What this is, is retaliatory in nature.”
Whether one sees this as a brilliant piece of political strategy by the Mayor or a total jerk move likely depends on one’s opinion about the pension issue. The calculation is left as an exercise for the reader.