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More on the firefighters’ pay parity proposal

Here’s that full Chron story I mentioned yesterday:

Houston firefighters delivered over 32,000 signatures to City Hall on Monday in support of asking voters in November to mandate parity in pay between firefighter and police officer ranks, a maneuver that could threaten the city’s plans to sell $1 billion in bonds as part of its pension reform plan.

While the two measures are unrelated, both are tied to firefighters’ displeasure with the Turner administration.

As such, a unified voting bloc of firefighters during what is expected to be a low-turnout election in November could spell trouble for Mayor Sylvester Turner’s signature pension reform plan, and potentially thrust the city back into the fiscal quagmire Turner spent his first year in office trying to escape.

“If one issue is a five-alarm fire, both together are a 10-alarm fire,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

[…]

The union originally sought a 21 percent pay raise over three years, according to Turner, but lowered that request to 17 percent. The city, meanwhile, offered 9.5 percent over three years, which Turner said would stretch the city’s financial capabilities.

Houston firefighters have been without a contract for three years. The “evergreen” terms that had governed their employment during that time lapsed last month, reverting to state law and local ordinance. City Council made the terms in that local ordinance less favorable in a unanimous vote on the same morning the union filed its lawsuit.

“This petition drive was necessary because Houston firefighters are at a breaking point,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association at a press conference Monday. “We now are asking the voters to help Houston firefighters because the city refuses to do so.”

The petition seeks to amend the city’s charter to mandate equal pay and benefits between firefighters and police-officers of similar status, but not necessarily title, accounting for varied rank structures between the two departments.

See here for the background. I have a basic question to ask here: Who is going to support the firefighters in this effort? Who will their allies be in this fight? Because I’m having a hard time seeing who is on their side right now.

As noted, Council voted unanimously to impose those less favorable “evergreen” terms under which they now grudgingly labor, and Council approved the pension reform plan on a 16-1 vote, with the only No coming from CM Knox, who wanted to see a bill get filed first. Who on Council is going to endorse the pay parity effort?

If the thinking is that the firefighters might try to tank the pension obligation bonds as payback or leverage as part of this, then please note that the House passed the pension reform bill 103-43, and the Senate passed it 25-5. Of the Harris County contingent, Sen. Sylvia Garcia was a “present, not voting”, while Reps. Jessican Farrar and Briscoe Cain (a pairing I’d never expected to see) were No votes. Everyone else voted Yes. I don’t see Sen. Garcia and Rep. Farrar crossing swords with Mayor Turner on this, and Rep. Cain represents Baytown. Who in the Lege will stand with the firefighters? Maybe Sen. Paul Bettencourt, because he’s a little weasel who likes to stick it to Houston, but he was the one who put the provision in to require a vote on the bonds.

Of the establishment groups that tend to get involved in city politics, the Greater Houston Partnership is all in on pension reform and spending restraint. I can’t see the Realtors opposing the Mayor on this, nor the GLBT Political Caucus, nor any Democratic-aligned groups. The one possible exception is labor, but this proposal would be bad for the police and the city workers. It’s not about a rising tide, it’s just shifting money to the firefighters from the rest of the city employees. Maybe labor backs this, maybe they don’t. The Chronicle will surely endorse a No vote. Who among the big endorsers will be with the firefighters?

I’m sure the firefighters will have some allies. My point is that as I see it, the Mayor already has a lot more. Which brings me to the next point, which is where will the firefighters get the money to run their pro-pay parity campaign? It helps to have allies, who can not only make donations themselves but also hold fundraisers, solicit contributions from their networks, and eventually participate in campaign activities. I think we all agree that Mayor Turner is a good fundraiser, and he can assemble a pretty good get out the vote campaign. While this is certainly likely to be a low turnout election, at least compared to a normal city election, turnout is in part determined by how many people are aware there is something or someone for them to vote on. Who do you think is going to have more resources and a bigger microphone for getting out a message about the need to vote? And bear in mind, even if the firefighters are good at raising money, that in itself can be used against them. I mean, here they are claiming poverty, holding up signs saying they can’t afford to live in the city, but they can spend a bunch of money on a campaign? Yes, I know, the one doesn’t really have anything to do with the other, but do you want to have to explain that to people?

What I think it comes down to is this: Sure, people like firefighters, and they think they should be adequately compensated. In the abstract, their proposal sounds reasonable, and there are probably a lot of people who would feel good about paying our firefighters more. But this isn’t an abstract choice, and there are lots of consequences to making it. The firefighters are asking for something for themselves, something that doesn’t benefit anyone else and which potentially has a large cost attached to it that everyone will pay. They’re doing all this while at the same time spitting on an offer from the city to give them a ten percent raise. Now how positively will people feel about their proposal? That’s what we’ll find out. Campos has more.

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21 Comments

  1. BH says:

    Your opinion seems pretty slanted on this. You’re not really analyzing the claims that they’ve made – that their pension was sound, that their retirement income is now being put at risk, and that they’ve been paid much less than police for some time. Maybe if you spend a little time looking at those points, you’ll reach a different conclusion. But even if you don’t, it will be easier to read than this blithe review of their proposal.

  2. PDiddie says:

    Nancy Sims is correct, Campos is — shockingly — about half right, w/r/t the ‘bad blood’ waiting to be spilled — and you, my friend, are deep-in-the-weeds mistaken about this.

    Your warnings about the horrors of broken budgets, etc. fly right over the head of our Republican public education-gutted electorate.

    Do Democrats really want to spearhead a public castigation of working men and women — fire fighters, mind you — in the current political climate? When I read on Facebook the mayor’s special assistant encouraging his friends not to sign the petition, a high-ranking city official calling the petition-gatherers “liars” … the PR battle has already been lost.

    But if Mayor Turner and his staff want to continue making enemies of allies, it’s no longer my business to try to stop them. I can’t see a win for him and them anywhere by taking the tack you suggest, but hey, I could be wrong. Gotta say, it looks kinda Trumpian to me, though.

    There are 72 comments on my Nextdoor page (Westbury) about the petition and all of them, save perhaps one, are effusively in support.

    The power brokers, institutions, establishment, etc. may be stacked against the firefighters, but they surely appear to have the people solidly with them. (Oh, and David Feldman, so they do quite obviously have plenty of money.)

    The resolution will pass resoundingly and the mayor and council better start think about how to deal with it.

  3. BH – I discussed the merits of the firefighters’ proposal in the previous blog post on this subject, which is linked to in the post. There’s not much to evaluate, because there isn’t a concrete proposal. It’s an idea with no details, and no price tag. My purpose for this post was to look at the politics of the firefighters’ efforts, as that was the main subject of the Chron story. When there is something substantive to the proposal, I’ll analyze it more closely.

    PDiddie – You may be right. All I’m saying is that from what I can see right now, the firefighters have not had any visible allies of late. As I said in the post, I agree there is a superficial appeal to what they are putting out there. Will it survive contact with a discussion about what it means and what it will cost? We’ll see.

    It is interesting and quite possibly dangerous for Mayor Turner to be fighting with a group that had so strongly backed him in 2015 and with whom he has had a long-standing good relationship. Campos (who you may recall worked for Bill King) has been pushing that line of thinking very hard. Maybe the problem here, and this is something I have suggested before, is that the firefighters had unrealistic expectations. The pension reform plan was a surprise to no one. The city has offered them a 9.5% raise, which is pretty darned generous. You say Turner’s tactics in this fight strike you as Trumpian. I say that to threaten the city’s financial health by blowing up the pension obligation bonds if they don’t get everything they want strikes me as pretty Tea Partyish on the firefighters’ part. To-may-toe, to-mah-toe, perhaps.

    Also, too: Going by what I observed last year on NextDoor and Heights Kids, one might have expected the HEB-sponsored changes to the booze ordinance to fail. We know how that turned out.

  4. Steve Houston says:

    BH/PDiddie, while it was impolite of the Mayor’s people to call them “liars”, there was ample evidence to prove just that throughout the legislative session. Having heard the comments from a few gathering signatures lately, I can’t say that they’ve changed any in that regard as well. There were HFD members telling everyone in the world how well funded their pension was for months but when you looked a little closer, it was clear they were nowhere near as well funded, the past two years pension returns were in the toilet. That was why even their pension board wanted to drop their investment rate down to a little over 7% and were demanding the city increase its payment by more than 50%.

    I tend to agree with you that the measure will pass if it gets to the voters and that’s okay too. In the interim, Mayor Turner and his staff can start working on how best to convert HFD’s schedule to an 8 or 9 hour shift, move fire suppression resources over to medical coverage since that is where most of their services are in demand, and repeal the 4 men on a truck for a strategy that waits until enough equipment arrives to properly and safely fight fires. Given the need to reduce the force if compensation increases that much, a new line of thinking will need to be deployed, perhaps not as harsh as Bill offered not long ago here but something along the lines of it.

  5. Ross says:

    @Steve, given that almost every firefighter I’ve ever met has an extra job, I bet there would be massive resistance to an 8/9 hour 5 day schedule.

  6. Steve Houston says:

    Ross, if we’re paying them regularly to sleep a good portion of their shifts, then we are not using the resulting manpower efficiently. Besides, if they really want parity, they should be willing to become more like that they wish to be paid like. To that end, they can use those sleep hours to engage in inspecting buildings or other random enforcement duties as we expect the cops to do. Either they want parity or they don’t, changing shifts to mirror those of the group they want to mirror seems reasonable. Last time I checked, most cops have extra jobs too so I’m sure they can figure it all out as they embrace a true sense of parity rather than just reap the rewards of it. 😉
    (Be back soon, heading out on vacation. best wishes to all!)

  7. David Fagan says:

    To Ross; Feel free to examine the conversation you are about to embark on in the comments section of “firefighters petition for a raise” in this same blog site, and have fun with it.

  8. Mainstream says:

    I don’t see Republicans or conservative voters supporting the Firefighter proposal, either. Most are for freedom of contract, and would not agree that voters should be dictating pay and benefits details to an employer. Most are hostile to unions, including the firefighters’ union.

  9. Lucas says:

    You do realize that part of the pension cuts to firefighters was a 2% increase in contributions to the pension fund? The 9.5% also included an unrealistic concessions. The city initially offered 4% over 2 years and came up with the additional 5.5% by stripping benefits. A firefighter at $28,000 qualifies for SNAP (food stamps) if they 2 children. As a taxpaying citizen, I feel this unacceptable

  10. Lucas says:

    You do realize that part of the pension cuts to firefighters was a 2% increase in contributions to the pension fund? The 9.5% also included an unrealistic concessions. The city initially offered 4% over 2 years and came up with the additional 5.5% by stripping benefits. A firefighter at $28,000 qualifies for SNAP (food stamps) if they 2 children. As a taxpaying citizen, I feel this unacceptable

  11. Ross says:

    That $28,000 figure is for firefighter trainees. Once they get out of the academy, the salary jumps to over $40,000, and 15 months after that, they are eligible for a promotion that brings even more income. Plus, with the hours they work, second jobs are a distinct possibility.

  12. neither here nor there says:

    Why do we consider a second job?

    Wrong philosophy, the rich take from the working people by limiting how much they can make. Maybe we should take from the rich what they take from the working people.

    Instead we want to punish working people because they take a second job so they can properly help their family and plan for a proper retirement.

  13. Jack Rhem says:

    Steve,

    The more and more I read your position (s) on this, the more I begin to think you must be willfully ignoring certain facts. You are obviously more informed than most and are able to articulate your position well, but your arguments are so fundamentally flawed you must be aware.

    4-man staffing is an industry wide minimal staffing. I emphasize minimal. Countless studies by municipalities (Dallas et. al) along with federal agencies like the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and CDC have all honed in on 4 men per company as a MINIMAL staffing standard. Large urban cities often surpass this. FDNY staffers mostly 5 men on their engine companies and 6 men on ladder trucks. Chicago has 5 man ladders. Philadelphia (yes, a decaying city with more in common with Detroit than Houston) staffs 5 men on a ladder truck.

    4-man staffing has long been known to represent a political compromise as the “4th” man is effectively unavailable for interior structural firefighting as he’ll be driving and not properly geared up. “2 in – 2 out” is just something that exists on paper.

    The notion that a 3 man company will show up to a fire with any indication that someone might be inside and simply twiddle their thumbs and wait for another company to arrive before doing anything interior is disingenuous. It would be morally bereft of said firefighters to do what you suggest and simply wait. At the same time, the unnecessary risk would be entirely on managers, policy wonks, and voters who advocate for 3 man staffing.

    Jay Janke died for us to get the 4th man. I remember going to that funeral at the age of 15 or 16. His wife relayed an anecdote of asking him, Cpt. Jay Janke, what it would take for Houston to put a 4th man on its apparatus. He said someone would have to die. Well, his prediction was proven right several weeks later when he was in fact that person and died in a high rise fire in the Galleria. Just like any AAR ( what effectively NIOSH Line of Duty Death reports are), there are always several factors contributing to the outcome. However, the resounding chorus of this one was staffing. Almost all companies responding in one of the most densely populated parts of the state were running with 3 man companies.

    I couldn’t care less about creating more jobs for strangers. I do care about outcomes for citizens, the safety of firefighters, and providing robust, competent fire protection. I tend to have some more libertarian tendencies, and do think that if citizens don’t want to pay the requisite taxes for certain services then that’s fine. The rational and just solution is to cut companies before staffing on an apparatus. If you don’t want to pay the piper, just don’t have a fire engine in your neighborhood. If you don’t want to spend the money (staffing is around 94% of HFD’s budget) and still keep your neighborhood fire engine, you want to have your cake and eat it too. It reminds of hearing a tea partier at a King Street Patriots’ rally (don’t think they exist anymore) yelling for politicians to “keep their GD hands off my Medicare!”

    Cognitive dissonance at its finest.

    Lastly, efficiency and effectiveness, in the context of public safety, can almost be said to exist on a spectrum with each representing the opposite end of said spectrum. If we really wanted an efficient FD, we would just staffing it till 10pm at night. Of course efficiency would merely be measured on a call volume per hour metric. Of course this would be asinine and would irrespective of the nature of said call. Shootings, fires likely to result in fatalities, the most extreme of car wrecks – response to these calls also represent the least efficient times for the system.

    If you want to speak to the political aspects of this, I’m all ears. It’s not my purview, and thus I am more likely to ask questions than tell a political scientist what is, and what isn’t. Having said that, you should probably also take the same approach to operational aspects of the fire department like staffing, shift schedules (anyone calling for 8 and 12 hour shift is either uninformed or willfully ignorant), etc.

    If you want to read some thoughtful commentary on public fire protection go wander around this blog:

    https://medium.com/elitecommandtraining/fire-departments-are-response-models-not-production-models-f7943d5c623d

  14. David Fagan says:

    Ross, ELIGIBLE for a promotion, unlike lawyers, doctors, or accountants, these promotions are not about only passing a minimum standard, but beating out another eligible person. Imagine if there were only going to be 100 lawyers admitted to the bar among all who tested, how would that change the entire system?

  15. David Fagan says:

    With the obvious over use of the TIRZ loop hole, there should be a public safety cost included in their creation ordinance.

  16. Ross says:

    David, that may be true. My main point was that the $28,000 number bandied about by petition supporters applies to trainees only, not to firefighters who are working.

  17. Steve Houston says:

    David, given public safety represents the majority of the operating budget, if you exclude it from the TIRZ program, you might as well scrap the whole TIRZ program. And Ross makes a very good point regarding trainees getting less pay; in many places, people have to already have the needed training in order to apply for openings so you’re lucky the city isn’t charging you for the expensive training.

    Lucas, your own pension representatives wanted to lower your discount rate from 8.5% to 7.25%, that change alone costing your pension over 1.5 BILLION dollars on top of losses already incurred. Expecting employees to pick up some of the resulting costs by paying more into the fund as well as benefit cuts makes sense.

    Jack, you’re mistaken. When a topic of interest is presented me, I research it myself rather than rely on those who it directly benefits. That is not to say I don’t listen to such input but I take it with a few grains of salt for obvious reasons. Most of what is argued here and on other political blogs are the policy aspects you refer to over operation issues but believe it or not, there are a great many people with valid points of view out here in the universe, not all of them riding around in big shiny red trucks.

    If you want to convince Houstonians of something, the worst possible approach you can take is to compare us to how New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles do it. And I understand how some in the industry support particular approaches to operations but frankly, their words often ring hollow when you go beyond just taking their word for something. There is a growing body of evidence that 12 hour shifts for firefighters are actually healthier for you, the broken sleep cycle of running calls for service at any given time never compensated by your ability to go back to sleep when you finish. Furthermore, Houston isn’t built like those decaying old cities up north nor are most fires so large as to require a major response, the idea that the city is especially in jeopardy by balancing out what voters are willing to pay against having a premiere level of service, that is simply part of the equation of public service.

    That you and your fellows get so knee jerk over mentions of sleeping on the clock or over the slightest possibility of modifying shifts to staff more manpower on shifts that always have higher amounts of work is most telling. That some cling to outdated service delivery methods rather than evolve to address the bulk of demand which ties to medical coverage, is also telling, there being ample evidence to look into possible new approaches (smaller trucks with new tech, placing some on 12 hour shifts and others rotating on 24 hour shifts, or dozens of other innovations that work just fine when you pull your heads out of the sand). That being said, your pension modifications are water under the bridge so move forward, the 9.5% offer on the table a heck of a lot better than the state system you are currently under since your representatives declined another extension of your last contract.

  18. Jack Rhem says:

    Steve, I applaud your tendency to research topics on the internet before commenting. That being said, you might acquaint yourself with a common saying in medicine – “don’t confuse your Web MD search with my MD.”

    Honestly, go read the blog I mentioned. It gives an articulate, rationale explanation for why things are the way they are in the fire service.

    24 hour shifts are a product of municipalities desire to lower OT costs. There is a strong correlation between the number of shift changes and OT.

    Lots of surrounding, lower call volume cities around Houston and the nation as well are actually going to 48 hour shifts. The industry is shifting to the opposite of what you’re suggesting. Now, that would never work in a larger busier city, but city managers in Sugarland, Bellaire, etc. are always looking to save money, and they’ve found fewer shift changes to be the answer.

  19. Jack Rhem says:

    “That being said, your pension modifications are water under the bridge so move forward, the 9.5% offer on the table a heck of a lot better than the state system you are currently under since your representatives declined another extension of your last contract.”

    I’m not sure what this means exactly. Representatives at the state legislature have nothing to do with the union’s employment contract.

    The pension is also not “water under the bridge.” There is a lawsuit, and truth be told there will be a multitude contesting the issue.

    I think you have a fundamental misunderstanding of the separate issues regarding compensation tied to an employment contract (Local 341) and deferred compensation in the form of a DB plan that the state exercises some control over as it pertains to the two big stakeholders – the city of Houston and the HFRRF (pension board – not Local 341).

  20. Steve Houston says:

    Jack, make no mistake, the latest articles on the subject of shift length present that shorter shifts are safer in busier cities, tying in with the sleep studies that show people getting irregular sleep are more apt to make mistakes. Those articles were from industry recognized literature and included peer review studies, the change not necessarily saving money but making for a safer work environment. And I read the blog, finding Kevin Moran’s comments (that the author largely agreed with) to make a great deal of sense, the fact that so many of you argue for the traditional model in these changing times simply telling me that your vested interests outweigh the public good. If you want to remain on a 24 hour shift, that can be negotiated of course, which was the original point, but it is not safer.

    Otherwise, decisions on how to schedule manpower versus covering as many likely scenarios is old news and no matter which road you take, lives will hang in the balance. That is why I am an advocate of boosting EMS services, getting firefighters out of grunt work like dispatch, and deploying new technology as times change. Unlike Bill who commented previously (in another thread) that we should just accept lower quality services, at least I support giving y’all raises but the question remains as to what voters will get in return. You have a decent job where most of you are not digging ditches straight through each shift, working a week a month with tremendous down time every working day. Be happy with what you have or find a better city to work for, but if you want to trade the 9.5% that is on the table to remain on highly inefficient, 24 hour shifts, I’m sure that could be worked out too. 😉

  21. Steve Houston says:

    Jack, maybe you missed it but the pension lawsuit was tossed out by the judge. That makes it water under the bridge. And the city has given you your latest pay table, lowering your compensation because your representatives did not want to extend the old terms. Now your representatives are trying another ruse that is destined to fail or at very least be tied up in the courts before being struck down (this parity venture), instead of moving forward with the offered raise.

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