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The further effects of Prop B

I mean, what did you expect?

The Houston Fire Department would idle six to nine fire trucks and employ fewer firefighters per shift, risking a modest increase in response times, if City Council approves a $25 million reduction in HFD’s budget as part of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s plan to fund Proposition B, Fire Chief Sam Peña said.

The mayor and fire union officials disagree whether the proposed cuts would put the public at greater risk. Turner said Wednesday that the city can withstand fewer firefighters, while Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said the cuts “will risk firefighters’ safety and the people we serve.”

Shrinking the department through a combination of attrition and layoffs would mark the first tangible citywide impact of the Prop. B pay parity referendum, creating a difficult choice for City Council members who must approve a balanced budget by June 30 but also risk being accused of undermining public safety during an election year.

[…]

To absorb its portion of the cut — $25 million — the fire department will need to reduce its head count by 378, Peña said, noting that the figure includes employees lost to retirement, resignation and other factors aside from layoffs.

HFD typically loses 150 to 160 firefighters annually through attrition, though Peña said he expects that number to rise this year amid the turmoil of Prop. B’s implementation, leaving perhaps 200 or fewer firefighters to receive pink slips. The city’s fiscal year 2019 budget accounts for 4,090 firefighters.

[…]

Service reductions could be avoided, Peña said, if the city and fire union agree on a way to phase in the pay raises over multiple years. Peña also said he could maintain current levels of service by cutting only 239 positions. A personnel reduction of that amount would save $15.8 million — about $9 million short of what Turner has directed Peña to cut.

Campos has been saying that we should not be in this mess. Here’s a crazy idea: What if – stay with me here – what if Prop B was a bad idea that never should have been put on the ballot, and never should have been approved once it was put on the ballot? What if the reason we’re in this mess is because the voters approved a costly annual expenditure for which no price tag was attached or means of funding was provided?

Let’s try a thought experiment. Suppose Prop B, instead of being what it is, mandated that every firefighter be paid a million dollars a year. What do you think the city’s response would be if that happened? I’m going to suggest they’d do what they’re doing now, which is trying to reduce the obligation so the budget can be balanced, as is mandated by charter. I’m sure people wouldn’t like that solution, but what other options are there? My example is ridiculous, but only in degree. The underlying problem remains the same: This is a large budget item that was imposed on the city. The city cannot raise revenues beyond the limits of the revenue cap. Cutting costs was and is the only option.

We can’t go back and redo Prop B. It passed, and the city has to implement it. Mayor Turner said it was a cost the city couldn’t afford, and that if Prop B passed it would lead to layoffs. He was quite clear about what would happen. Why is this a surprise?

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17 Comments

  1. Manny says:

    It is not a surprise that is what is happening, the funny thing is that there is a lot of waste in city government, why is that not being addressed?

    They could start with the use it or lose it. Every end of the budget year, departments are buys doing and buying things to use the money rather than return it and risk their budget going down. Guess what, the budgets never go down.

    They could cut pay for police, that has been done before, Kathy Whitmire.

    There are a lot of options, but Turner did warn the community and the fire department what he was going to do.

    I supported proposition B

  2. Mainstream says:

    When I travel in Europe and Asia, I often see ambulances the size of SmartCars zipping through urban traffic and providing sufficient and faster response times. Maybe we need to rethink the way we deliver EMS services, instead of having huge fire trucks fight clogged traffic to show up in response to medical calls.

  3. Manny says:

    Mainstream, streets in Europe tend to me much more narrow than here, right? Do you think that may account for at least one reason for the smaller size?

  4. C.L. says:

    Yesterday I was doing some shopping at the Studewood/I-10 Kroger around 11am. Pulled in the parking lot only to see a HFD ladder truck #8 parked right by the front entrance. Thought to myself, there must be a fire or EMS-related emergency going on inside. Walked around the store a bit, picked up my goods, only to see four HFD guys in line at the register next to me, with the first guy pushing the grocery-filled cart and the remaining three walking behind him.

    It took at trip in a 3 gallons to the mile ladder truck and four HFD gentleman to buy groceries for the Station House ?

    This is why we can’t have nice things…

  5. mollusk says:

    One reason why a fully staffed truck goes out to do the grocery run (or whatever) is so they can abandon the shopping cart (or whatever) if a call comes in, rather than returning to the station. However, I’ll second the idea that we could send some smaller vehicle (say a Tahoe or Explorer, or even a small car) on EMT calls that don’t require an immediate ambulance… ‘cept that means another vehicle that isn’t already in the budget.

  6. C.L. says:

    Mollusk, I’m with ya…assuming this is their sole truck and no one else at the Station could have taken the Unit’s Tahoe/Explorer or better yet, their own personal car, on this shopping trip. Good grief, I wish I had a job that paid me to go grocery shopping.

  7. mollusk says:

    C.L., firefighters literally live at the station while they’re on their 24 hour shift, including eating, sleeping, etc. And again, when a call comes in, they have to bug out right then, regardless of where they happen to be.

  8. Rusty Shackleford says:

    Getting off in the weeds here, but ok. Most stations don’t have a smaller SUV type vehicle. There is no compartment on an ambulance that is considered acceptable for toting groceries. Cooking the day’s meals for up to 12-16 firefighters might entail grocery shopping. If my house catches fire or my mom stops breathing, please be parked at the front so you can get out fast. It’s a different type of job.

  9. Jules says:

    Hiring extra firefighters and buying extra vehicles just for grocery shopping is a great idea CL. Prop B solved!

  10. Manny says:

    C.L. the people that go on that truck are the same ones that would respond to an emergency.

    Police when you see them eating in a place or on duty and also getting paid, thus the police car up front. Police work 8 hour days, that includes lunch, and breaks, as they are always on duty. That applies if I am not mistaken to police officers that are not on patrol and would not have to respond to emergencies.

  11. Rusty Shackleford says:

    Manny, I may be wrong, but I am fairly sure that at least for HPD officers, meal breaks are considered “off the air” time and calls are not dispatched to those officers. HFD units get no meal breaks and are in service for a call whether shopping for groceries, cleaning the station, mowing the grass, or any other daily activities. More to the original point, the unfunded liability of Prop B was hardly a surprise to this administration. While this freight train was barreling toward him, Turner decided not only to ignore it, but pushed forward with police raises compounding the costs. The city handed itself a legitimate dilemma, no doubt. I have just been very disappointed with Turner’s lack of any original ideas to move forward. This has been a slow moving catastrophe years in the making. I just hoped for more than dug in heels.

  12. Manny says:

    Rusty, I am pretty sure I am correct as to patrol officers. While it was true as to all police officers a few years back I am fairly confident that it is still the same, but it is possible that things have changed.

    Your are correct as to why give raises when you think that it will effect how much you have to pay fire personal.

  13. C.L. says:

    Bottom line is/was, the optics (of having a ladder truck parked in front of Kroger while they shopped) were incredibly bad.

  14. David Fagan says:

    C.L. here’s an idea, go to station 8, which is the large one down town, walk inside, you can do that, find the first person with a white shirt on (these are the guys who ride in suv style vehicles) trek him your idea about sending an suv in place of an engine, because 8’s has no ladder truck. I don’t know what ladder truck you saw, but there is no ladder truck with only an 8. Studewood and i10 may have been 6’s on Washington, you can find the same suv there. You have a great idea, get out there and tell the right people.

    I think Houston has, historically, earned every last bit and crumb of prop b.

  15. Bill Daniels says:

    Here’s an idea that should make everyone happy:

    Grocery stores now offer curbside service, where you order the stuff, and have it all ready for you when you get there. The FF’s can do that, then have it delivered via Ubereats or other delivery service.

    Problem solved, now no one has to leave the station to grocery shop again.

  16. Jules says:

    The firefighters don’t need murder advocates micromanaging their grocery shopping.

  17. J says:

    I would like to say first, I do agree that the firefighters should have gotten a pay raise. They have tough jobs and earned it. A 29% pay raise, no, not at the expense of the city. The Fire Union should have accepted the 9% raises that were offered by Mayor Turner, this is something the city had enough to budget for. What people are not realizing is that the City offered the fire department a 9% RAISE and they TURNED IT DOWN… That’s why I did not support Prop B (a 29% raise, which is unheard of in any private sector job and not something that ANY company, private or public can absorb – especially without a funding source) as it was written, if Prop B came with a funding source that could have at least covered the 20% pay raise, then at least the City would only have to absorb the 9% that was already suggested.

    Another major point is that the Fire Union had the same opportunities as the Police Union to accept the raises prior to Mayor Turner, which they turned down as well, which is why they are making the 29% less. It is not the City’s fault that the Firefighter’s union did not accept the previous raises for their firefighters. Now, the union is costing the jobs of not only the firefighters, who they are supposed to protect, but also to the innocent municipal employees who are also being negatively affected by this when they chose to take an average of 2% raise over the same three year period that the fire fighter union was offered 9%…

    How unfair is that to the municipal workers, services, etc. That are going to feel the brunt of this Prob B initiative? Shouldn’t the fire fighter’s union allow for the 5 year phase in so that the municipal workers (as well as the fire fighters) can not have the layoffs.