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Apparently, that pay parity debate did happen

I missed the last twist in this saga, but in the end it did happen.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

After months of trading barbs from a distance, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the head of Houston’s firefighters’ union met in a vigorous but civil debate Saturday, displaying their fundamental differences over just about everything related to the November ballot referendum that would grant firefighters pay “parity” with police officers of corresponding rank and seniority.

The dispute revolves around a divisive question: If the measure known as Proposition B passes, can the city afford it? If anything, the debate at St. John’s United Methodist Church between Turner and Houston Professional Fire Firefighters Association President Marty Lancton revealed how irreconcilable the opposing views on that question truly are.

From Turner’s perspective, Houston firefighters deserve to receive better pay, but not to the extent that their raises “bankrupt the city,” as he claimed Proposition B would do by mandating 29 percent raises for firefighters, at a cost of than $100 million a year.

What’s more, Turner said Saturday, the measure does not call for true “parity” because it mandates only equal pay, ignoring retirement benefits, training and education requirements — in practice granting firefighters better pay, Turner argued.

To Lancton, the city has balanced its budget on the backs of firefighters to the point that the department’s rank-and-file members are struggling to make ends meet, with salaries far lower than those of firefighters in other Texas cities.

“What Houston firefighters seek is fair, competitive pay. Because of low pay, many Houston-trained firefighters are leaving for other departments,” Lancton said. “Our pay is so low that starting firefighters, supporting families, can even qualify for government assistance. We’ve asked the city for competitive pay for nearly a decade. The city has repeatedly rejected our efforts to reach an acceptable contract agreement.”

It goes from there, and I don’t think there’s much that you haven’t seen if you’ve been following this. At last report, Lancton had pulled out of the debate because the firefighters didn’t want Lisa Falkenberg moderating (because they didn’t like the Chron’s editorial stance against Prop B) and had wanted to address the Democratic precinct chairs in an effort to get Prop B endorsed by the HCDP. Neither of these conditions changed – Falkenberg still moderated, and the HCDP precinct chairs are not getting together for an endorsement vote – so I don’t know what changed from the firefighters’ perspective. Be that as it may, I’m glad this happened – the voters deserved such an event. I wish I could have been there but I was out of town. If you attended or saw a stream of it, please leave a comment with your impressions.

The pay parity proposal debate that wasn’t

Let’s not get ready to rumble!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s firefighters union has withdrawn from a Saturday debate with Mayor Sylvester Turner on their proposal to seek pay “parity” with police officers, saying the event’s host, the Harris County Democratic Party, had given the mayor too much control over the event.

The hour-long event would have marked the first time the mayor and the union addressed the contentious issue on the same stage.

“We looked forward to the debate,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said in a Wednesday morning statement, “but we recognize that party insiders failed to stop the manipulation of the ground rules to advantage the mayor. We are disappointed in the HCDP’s acquiescence to the mayor, but are grateful for the support of HCDP precinct chairs and the many Houstonians they represent.”

Among the union’s complaints were that Houston Chronicle opinion editor Lisa Falkenberg was to serve as moderator (the editorial board expressed opposition to the parity proposal in July 2017), and that Democratic Party officials did not agree to let Lancton address precinct chairs or let them vote on whether to endorse the proposition.

Alas. Here’s the earlier story announcing the event that was the original basis of this post. I am not able to be there for this not-a-forum, but perhaps you can be.

County Democratic Party Chair Lillie Schechter said the party engaged in “extensive conversations” with both camps on the format of the discussion but respects the union’s decision to withdraw.

“The event details appeared in a Facebook announcement seen and approved by all parties last week. It is unfortunate the firefighter’s union has determined these details do not meet their needs,” she said. “We regret voters will not hear from the firefighter’s union at this time. Mayor Turner and Lisa are welcome to use the full hour we have allotted for this event.”

The party’s leadership committee, after hearing from the fire union at a recent meeting, Schechter said, voted to schedule the debate to hear from both sides. She said the gathering was never envisioned as ending in a vote, saying such votes only occur at quarterly gatherings of all precinct chairs, the last of which was held Sept. 13.

Yes, speaking as a precinct chair, that’s how our rules work. Precinct chairs vote to endorse or not endorse ballot measures like this at our quarterly meetings. We endorsed the flood bond referendum at the June meeting, for instance. There were members from the firefighters’ union at the September meeting, talking up their proposal, but no motion for an endorsement vote. Which I have to say would have been contentious, and because of that I’m glad it didn’t come up. I don’t know what may or may not have happened behind the scenes, but I do know they could have made a pretty big fuss about this at the meeting if they had wanted to.

Personally, I think an event like this, aimed at the general public, rather than an agenda item for a normally dry meeting of precinct chairs, would be a much better way to allow both sides to air their views (I’m assuming that if Lancton had been given time to address us, then Mayor Turner or a representative from his office would have been given time as well). But hey, whatever. Perhaps the Mayor and Lisa Falkenberg can discuss the cost of this referendum.

The cost of Houston firefighters’ push for pay parity with police of corresponding rank and seniority could be 14 percent cheaper than what Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration has estimated, city Controller Chris Brown said Tuesday.

Brown’s office estimates that the proposal, which will appear as Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot, will cost $85.2 million a year, lower than the $98.6 million figure Turner has used. Neither estimate includes the 7 percent raise police would receive over the next two years if the city council approves a new proposed contract this week. That would increase the cost if voters decide to link fire and police salaries.

Brown acknowledged his analysis required a series of assumptions related to how the parity proposal would be implemented, and said the estimate shows the cost of the proposal would be “unsustainable.”

“The controller’s office believes that a sustainable solution exists but can only be achieved through negotiation in the collective bargaining process,” Brown said while presenting his estimate to the city council’s budget committee. “It’s through that process that the men and women of HFD should be able to negotiate a well-deserved raise, but also a well-deserved raise the city can actually afford over the long term.”

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton viewed Brown’s analysis as vindication of his view that Turner’s estimate is inflated.

“As the city controller proved today, the mayor’s Proposition B claims cannot be trusted. His math, like his judgment, is driven by an obsession with punishing Houston firefighters,” Lancton said.

[…]

Brown and Turner’s estimates are nearly identical on the projected increase to firefighters’ base salaries and the associated increase in retirement benefits: that roughly 20 percent increase would cost about $65 million per year.

The two estimates differ mostly on various incentives and allowances known as “special pays,” some of which firefighters receive now but which parity would increase, and some of which firefighters would receive for the first time if voters approve the measure.

Not sure how a reduction in the cost estimate from $98 million to $85 million is a vindication of the firefighters’ case, especially when $85 million is still a pretty damn big number and Controller Brown calls it “unsustainable”, but maybe that’s just me. I continue to believe this thing is going to pass so I sure hope the cost estimates we are seeing are overblown, but all things being equal I’d rather not have to find out. Be that as it may, if you don’t know what to make of all this, go attend the not-a-forum and see what you think.

The firefighter pay parity proposal sure seems like it’s going to pass

What are ya gonna do?

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is holding town halls to try to convince voters that the city can’t afford Proposition B, a ballot measure that would tie firefighters’ pay to that of police. It’s turning into an uphill fight.

Mayor Turner argues that full pay parity would cost Houston nearly $300 million, at a time when the city is wrestling with chronic deficits. But Turner is having a hard time getting voters to see this as anything other than attacking the firefighters.

“The default mode is not only to support equity pay but to support it by very big margins,” says Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.

That’s particularly the case if Democrats turn out in larger-than-usual numbers. “You’ll have a lot of voters coming out who are predisposed as Democrats to support equity pay for public employees,” Stein says. “On top of that, the firemen not only have a good campaign message, but they’re going to get national support from national public employee associations and unions to support this equity pay raise.”

I’ve already seen three pro-Prop B signs in my neighborhood. Mayor Turner has been busy holding town halls and writing op-eds, but beyond that I’ve not seen much of a campaign. So yeah, I expect this to pass, quite possibly by a lot. And I’d say Mayor Turner is making the same judgment.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has instituted a hiring freeze across the city government’s roughly 21,400 positions, ordering department directors seeking exceptions to meet with him or his chief of staff in person.

The directive, he wrote in a memo dated Friday, will be reviewed “at a later date this year.” Executive positions are exempt from the freeze, but those already require mayoral approval.

Mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said the order was spurred by Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot. That measure would give firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank and seniority, costing the city an estimated $98 million annually.

“The impact would financially cripple the city and force layoffs and cutbacks to services,” Benton said. “The mayor believes it is not prudent at this time to hire additional city of Houston employees, who would lose their jobs as a result of the election.”

I mean, what did you expect? At this point I’d say the city’s best strategy is to find some plaintiffs for the ballot language lawsuit, and hope to get an injunction preventing it from being implemented while it gets hashed out in court. I wouldn’t bet my own money on that outcome either, but the odds have to be better than beating this thing at the ballot box.

HFD Chief warns of layoffs

To be fair, this isn’t the first time we have heard this.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña on Tuesday warned of dire consequences — including possible layoffs of more than 800 firefighters and deferred maintenance or upgrades on aging equipment, if voters approve the firefighters’ pay parity initiative on the November ballot.

Peña’s warning came during a City Council Committee on Budget & Fiscal Affairs meeting to provide city leaders with their first look at how the Houston Fire Department might handle the costs of the ballot measure, which proposes to raise firefighter pay to that of their police peers.

In its latest estimate, the Turner administration says approval of the referendum would cost the city $98 million in its first year and would lead to cuts at the fire department as well as in other city agencies.

“A reduction of this size in personnel cannot be accomplished without a major restructuring of the current operations,” said Tantri Emo, director of the city’s finance department. Emo said the city’s $98 million estimate million came from comparing salaries of firefighters and police at similar ranks, and said the city did not yet have estimates that might factor in costs to the city’s pension system.

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton questioned the city’s calculation on how much pay parity would actually cost taxpayers. Lancton repeated past assertions that the city refused to negotiate or work with firefighters on issues ranging from pay to operations to equipment, but he did not provide the union’s cost estimates.

Emphasis mine. We all agree that this referendum will cost the city some money if passed, right? I mean, there’d be literally no point for the HPFFA to push for it if it didn’t mean higher pay for their members. As such, the fact that the union has refused to provide their own number whenever the city has cited one is telling. Obviously, the firefighters are going to argue that the city is exaggerating the cost, and they’re very likely correct about that. But it’s one thing to say “oh, it will only cost $10-20 million”, which the city probably could afford with at most minimal cuts, and another entirely to say “oh, it will only cost $50-60 million”, which the city can’t do without real cuts and starts to sound pretty expensive besides. If the firefighters can’t or won’t provide their own estimate of how much this will cost the city – and let’s be real, they most certainly do have their own estimate – then the city’s number is the one we must accept. And that’s a number that will absolutely lead to job cuts, including among HFD’s ranks.

Will this affect the outcome of the election? Maybe, if the city can get that message out. Holding a few town halls is nice and appreciated, but it’s not going to spread the message far and wide. Remember, nearly 400,000 ballots were cast in the city in 2010, with over 330K votes tallied in the Renew Houston and red light camera elections. You’re not going to reach that many people without significant outreach, and so far all I’ve seen is one pro-firefighter web ad. If there’s a campaign in the works, it’s going to need to get going soon.

Town hall meetings for city referenda

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

MAYOR TURNER INVITES CITY RESIDENTS TO TOWN HALL MEETINGS ABOUT THE 2 PROPOSITIONS ON THE NOV. 6 CITY BALLOT

Mayor Turner urges all voters who live in the city to learn about the Rebuild Houston and fire pay referendum elections on the Nov. 6 ballot.

He will host the following meetings from 6:30 7:45 p.m.:

–– Wednesday, Sept. 5 – District C –  Metropolitan Multi-Service Center, 1475 West Gray, 77019
–– Monday, Sept. 10  – District H – Moody Park, 3725 Fulton, 77009
–– Wednesday, Sept. 19 – District J – Sharpstown Community Center, 6600 Harbor Town, 77036
–– Thursday, Sept. 20 – District B – Kashmere MSC, 4802 Lockwood, 77026
–– Monday, Sept. 24 – District A – Trini Mendenhall Community Center, 1414 Wirt Road, 77055
–– Wednesday, Oct. 3 – District D – Sunnyside Metropolitan Multi-Service Center, 9314 Cullen, 77051
–– Thursday, Oct. 4 – District I – EB Cape Center, 4501 Leeland, 77023
–– Monday, Oct. 8 – District F – Alief Community Center, 11903 Bellaire Blvd., 77072
–– Wednesday, Oct. 17 – District K – Fountain Life Center, 14083 S. Main, 77035
–– Thursday, Oct. 18 – District G, Walnut Bend Recreation Center, 10601 Briar Forest, 77042

Mayor Turner will make the same presentation at District E meetings hosted by Council Member Dave Martin from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

–– Tuesday, Oct. 9 at the Kingwood Community Center, 4102 Rustic Woods Drive, Kingwood 77345
–– Tuesday, Oct. 16 at Space Center Houston, 1601 E. NASA Parkway, Houston 77058

Sorry about the late notice, but this just hit my inbox yesterday, though there was a press release for it last week. Note that the press release I linked to is incorrect about the start date for early voting. It begins October 22, which was correctly noted in the release I got in my mailbox. I’m very interested in seeing what kind of a campaign there is for and against this, but in the meantime there’s this.

Appeals court allows city to post video of pay parity hearing

Probably doesn’t matter much at this point, but there it is.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A Texas appeals court on Thursday ordered a state district judge to rescind his temporary restraining order requiring the city of Houston to remove video from its website that depicted a public city council committee hearing over a proposal to grant firefighters “pay parity” with police.

District Judge Kyle Carter should not have blocked the city from posting the video of the committee hearing because it is not clear the meeting constituted illegal electioneering, as the Houston firefighters union had alleged, the 14th Court of Appeals justices ruled.

That restraining order had expired last week anyway, said Cris Feldman, an attorney for the firefighters union, adding that the decision does not preclude a court from coming to the same conclusion that Carter did after further hearings in the case.

[…]

The section of state law banning local governments from using public funds to advocate for or against ballot measures was not intended to restrain public discussion of such issues, the justices wrote Thursday.

“It was not unreasonable or unexpected that statements tending to indicate support for, or opposition to, the charter amendment might be voiced at the meeting,” the nine-page opinion states. “Public funds were not being used for political advertising by making the meeting video publicly available, even though an incidental effect of posting the video on the city’s website may be to re-publish statements supporting or opposing the charter amendment.”

See here for the background, here for the Mayor’s statement, and here for a copy of the opinion. As noted, the TRO had expired on August 14, and the Chron posted their own copy of the video shortly after Judge Carter handed down his opinion, so this is all mostly academic. It may mean something after the election when the lawsuits over the wording of the referendum gets filed, but until then it’s mostly a warm-up exercise.

The firefighter pay parity referendum won’t be decided by the voters

it will be decided by the courts. Here’s a story out of Austin to illustrate.

Former Travis County judge Bill Aleshire has sued the city of Austin in the Texas Supreme Court, challenging the ballot language of a proposition up for a local vote in November.

The lawsuit filed Monday challenges ballot language related to Proposition K, which calls for an outside audit of government efficiency at City HallThe Austin City Council approved the ballot wording last week.

At that council meeting, some supporters of the proposition bristled at the language, which includes a cost estimate for the audit of between $1 million and $5 million. Proposition backers complain the inclusion of the cost estimate will bias voters against the measure because the wording does not mention any possible savings that could result from an audit.

You can follow the links and read the writ, which is embedded in that Statesman. I don’t care about any of that. My point here is that while Council has voted to put the measure on the ballot, we don’t have ballot language yet. Does anyone think for even a minute that the language that Mayor Turner will provide and Council will approve will be satisfactory to all of the stakeholders in this fight? Does anyone think it is possible for this referendum to be a) simple enough for everyone to be clear on what they’re voting on, and b) thorough enough for it to adequately cover all the relevant details? These were the points of contention in the lawsuits over the term limits referendum, and the Renew Houston referendum. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: The losing side in this vote, whichever side it is, will file a lawsuit arguing that the ballot language was inadequate, inaccurate, unintelligible, whatever else. Given the lifespan of the Renew Houston battle – which as you know is still not over – we’ll be handing this fight off to the next Mayor, and that is very much assuming a second term for Mayor Turner. On top of all of the other reasons why this is a bad idea, this is why this is a bad idea.

Firefighter pay proposal officially on the ballot

As required.

Houston voters in November will choose whether to grant firefighters pay “parity” with police of corresponding rank and seniority.

After weeks of wrangling over the issue — including angry debates, rare legislative maneuvers and allegations of electioneering — the city council voted unanimously Wednesday to place the proposal before voters Nov. 6.

Mayor Sylvester Turner initially gave council the option of scheduling the vote in November 2019 instead, but ultimately pulled that item from the agenda. Still, Turner repeated his concerns about the idea on Wednesday, saying it will cost the city $98 million a year and force layoffs.

The mayor said he intends to host a town hall meeting in each of the 11 council districts before November to educate voters on the issue.

“I don’t have a money-making machine,” Turner said. “I agree they deserve a pay raise, but the question is, what is our ability to pay?”

[…]

Councilman Dwight Boykins was among those who voiced support for the measure, suggesting that the city’s voter-imposed cap on property tax revenues be adjusted to help cover the cost. Boykins also floated the idea of imposing a monthly garbage fee; Houston is the only big city in Texas without one.

Turner and some other council members were, at best, reluctant to embrace those proposals.

Other council members’ concerns took various forms. Councilman Greg Travis suggested the Turner administration and the firefighters were engaged in a game of chicken in which all Houstonians would lose. Councilwoman Brenda Stardig bristled at Turner’s “threats” to cut services if the proposal passes, saying it was a breakdown in contract talks that led the firefighters to push for parity. Councilman Mike Laster, meanwhile, worried the item’s passage would have “serious unintended consequences for firefighters themselves.”

You know the background, but see here for a recent relevant post anyway. I’m going to vote against this, not that it really matters since the inevitable ballot language lawsuit only lacks a plaintiff at this point. I’ll be interested to see who takes what side in this fight – CM Boykins is the first elected official I’ve seen publicly support the idea – and how nasty it gets. Who’s going to run an anti campaign, and who’s going to contribute money to one or the other?I look forward to the 30 day reports. KUHF has more.

Firefighters file suit over handling of pay parity proposal

I figured we’d have to wait till after the eventual vote on the firefighters’ pay parity proposal for there to be litigation over it, but no.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The union representing Houston firefighters sued Mayor Sylvester Turner and a City Council member on Monday, alleging the officials are improperly using public resources to oppose a “pay parity” ballot initiative.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association accuses Mayor Turner and Council Member Dave Martin, who represents Kingwood, of campaigning against the ballot initiative, which would tie firefighter pay to that of Houston police officers of comparable rank and seniority.

The union argues it is a violation of the Texas Election Code and is asking for an injunction that would prohibit the officials from “continuing to post such political advertising on the City of Houston website.”

The mayor’s declined to comment Monday evening.

See here for the background. On Tuesday, they got a result.

Judge Kyle Carter agreed with the Houston fire union’s argument that the city council’s July 26 budget committee meeting constituted an act of illegal electioneering against the proposal and that public resources, essentially, had been used to present and post a political advertisement. The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued Mayor Sylvester Turner and Councilman Dave Martin, who chairs the budget committee, over the issue on Monday.

“There is a fair way to go about voicing your opposition and creating a campaign against a certain resolution and then there’s an unfair way,” Carter said in delivering his Tuesday morning decision. “Much of the hearing, I thought, was informative and served its purpose. However, there was a good portion of the hearing that … went beyond the pale.”

He did not elaborate on what comments he thought went too far.

Carter ordered attorneys for the city and the fire union to discuss what portions of the tape could be returned to the city website after the offending portions were redacted. The order, as issued, is valid through Aug. 14.

[…]

Buck Wood, an Austin-based public law attorney who helped pass Texas’ first open meetings and open records laws in 1973, said he had never heard of such a ruling in his 50 years of practice.

“Making your position known in a public forum is the essence of what the open meetings law is all about. Not only that, assuming it gets filmed by the city, it’s an open record and you can go get it under the public information act. That’s the whole idea,” Wood said. “The fact that they don’t like what the mayor and the council are saying doesn’t make any difference. That’s content censorship. I never heard of such a thing.”

Joe Larsen, a Houston lawyer with 25 years of experience in open meetings and open records law, agreed. Larsen said he can see such a committee discussion being problematic if its agenda was not posted properly or if the issue being discussed was irrelevant to the committee’s focus, but he said he cannot otherwise envision a way in which such a hearing could constitute electioneering.

“I don’t see how it could be,” he said. “What’s wrong about people taking a public position? How do you restrict your public officials on what they’re going to discuss? That can’t be the right result.”

“That is the equivalent of a 25 percent pay raise for firefighters which the city cannot afford,” Turner said. “The public has a right to listen to the public hearing and we will vigorously challenge the judge’s ruling.”

Not really sure what the practical effect of this ruling is. I mean, how much traffic do those committee hearing videos get? There was an earlier version of this story in which the Mayor referred to the proposal as “the equivalent of a 25 percent pay raise for firefighters which the city cannot afford”, a quote he repeated later on KUHF. The firefighters may have gotten this ruling – which the Mayor says he will appeal – but Turner get the opportunity to keep making his case against the firefighters in the news. Not sure that’s a great tradeoff for the firefighters.

Council discusses firefighter pay parity proposal

It will cost some money if it passes.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said Thursday that his firefighters deserve raises, but he would be hard-pressed to maintain his department budget without reducing his ranks if voters approve a measure granting firefighters “pay parity” with police.

“This is not a scare tactic,” Peña told a city council committee. “They’re simple numbers. In order to deliver the expected service this community wants we’re going to have to do restructuring. Even at that, I won’t be able to meet the entire gap.”

Peña’s comments were in response to questions during a city council committee meeting Thursday in regard to a proposed “pay parity” measure the Houston firefighters union wants to appear on the November ballot.

Others, including city officials, business leaders and police union members, told the committee that passage of the parity measure would force the city to cut services and lay off workers and could risk a credit downgrade for City Hall.

[…]

The firefighters union wants the referendum on the November ballot, but Turner said he will let the council choose the election date at its Aug. 8 meeting. The deadline for getting something on the November ballot is Aug. 20.

Turner this week said the committee hearing was intended to be informational.

“When you’re talking to your constituents and they ask you approximately how much this will cost, I’d like to think you’ll want to have an answer,” he told the council Wednesday.

See here for some background, and here for an earlier story about the Council meeting, which was not the very special meeting that failed to reach a quorum. The firefighters are correct that Council has a duty to out the measure on the ballot, and to do it any later than this November would justifiably be seen as another stall for time. Their complaints about Council discussing the price tag rings hollow to me, given 1) the lack of clarity of how a pay parity proposal would be implemented; 2) the experience of other cities that have done this; 3) the potential impact on pension costs; and 4) the city’s overall financial picture. You know how I feel about this, and let me note again the certainty that someone will file suit over the ballot language no matter how the vote goes. I agree with Campos that the fight over this issue will be contentious, with the police department and the Greater Houston Partnership siding with the city against the firefighters. It’s not great to contemplate, but it’s pretty much baked in at this point. We’ll see what Council does on August 8.

No quorum for very special Council meeting

Close, but no cigar.

A handful of city council members who organized a rare special meeting to push for a Houston firefighters petition seeking pay “parity” with police to appear on the November ballot fell short of a quorum Friday and broke up without a vote.

The resolution they had put forward called on Mayor Sylvester Turner to let the council vote at its meeting next week to place the parity petition on the ballot.

Turner told one council member last Friday that he planned to have that discussion at the Aug. 8 council meeting, but word of that plan had not reached the full council Monday when members Greg Travis, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig, Martha Castex-Tatum and Dwight Boykins signed a memo calling the special meeting.

[…]

No more than seven members reached the council chamber Friday morning, two short of the count necessary for a quorum, so Councilwoman Brenda Stardig called off the effort after 15 minutes.

Signatories Travis, Kubosh, Stardig and Boykins were present, though Boykins grew impatient and left. Council members Mike Knox, Steve Le and Dave Martin also were present. Castex-Tatum did not attend.

Martin had said he would skip the gathering, but the New Orleans native acknowledged he showed up in Cajun mode, spoiling for a fight.

See here for the background, and here for Mayor Turner’s statement. CM Martin did indeed mix it up, getting into squabbles with CMs Travis and Kubosh, which I encourage you to read. If more Council meetings had that kind of entertainment, I’m sure more people would tune in to them. There will be a Budget Committee hearing, followed by a Council vote on August 8, and we’ll have this thing on the November ballot.

A very special Council meeting

Who knew there was such a thing?

In a rare maneuver that sidesteps Mayor Sylvester Turner’s authority, five city council members have called a special meeting this week, hoping to force the issue of Houston firefighters’ push for a referendum on pay “parity” with police.

The council members aim to secure their colleagues’ support for a resolution calling on Turner to place an item on the council’s July 24 agenda to schedule a November election on the petition, which seeks to grant firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank.

In Houston’s strong-mayor form of government, the mayor generally has sole authority to decide what appears on the agenda for the weekly council meetings.

The lone exception allows three council members to set the agenda of a special meeting. Such gatherings — including this one — typically are organized without the mayor’s approval, and often struggle to muster a quorum, as many of the 16 council members are loathe to invite the mayor’s wrath.

Council members Greg Travis, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig, Martha Castex-Tatum and Dwight Boykins signed a Monday memo calling a special council meeting for Friday at 10 a.m.

Turner is on a trade mission in South America and will not be back in time to attend the meeting.

Kubosh said he signed the memo to help ensure the issue was discussed, noting that several elections have passed since the petition was submitted.

“They were successful last year at stalling it a whole year, so, yes, I think that’s possible,” Kubosh said, referring to the Turner administration.

[…]

[CM Dave] Martin [who chairs the Council’s budget committee] said he does not intend to attend Friday’s meeting and doubts the organizers will have the quorum necessary for a formal vote.

“If they don’t show up, they don’t show up,” Kubosh said. “But I’ll show up.”

It is unclear what the impact would be if the proposed resolution reaches a vote and passes.

City Attorney Ron Lewis declined to address whether that outcome could force the mayor to act, given that the city charter gives Turner control of the council agenda.

“As a practical matter,” Lewis said, “the item will go on an agenda that’s timely, and the mayor’s committed to that.”

Insert shrug emoji here. The petitions were certified in May, and one would think the vote would be in November. According to Mayor Turner’s chief of staff and confirmed by CM Martin, this was to be discussed at the budget committee hearing on July 26, with the item for placing it on the ballot to be on Council’s August 8 agenda. I don’t know what else there is to say.

Firefighters have their signatures

On to the next act in this drama.

A petition Houston firefighters submitted last summer seeking pay parity with police contains enough valid signatures to trigger a referendum election, City Secretary Anna Russell reported to Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city council Thursday.

Russell finished verifying the signatures a day ahead of a deadline given to the city by a state district judge last month. The judge originally set a deadline of April 27 after the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued the city last December, complaining Russell’s office had not validated its referendum petition in time for either the November 2017 or May 2018 ballots. Judge Dan Hinde agreed to give Russell another week after city lawyers said additional staff and overtime had been approved to finish the count.

Russell’s memo to the mayor and council said her office checked 26,708 signatures against Harris County’s list of qualified voters; 20,228 were verified. State law requires 20,000 qualified signatures on a petition to get a referedum on the ballot.

It is unclear when the item will appear before voters. City attorneys argued in court that the Turner administration does not intend to schedule a vote before the next regular municipal election cycle in November 2019, but the mayor, when asked about the petition count Wednesday, said the city council would have to discuss the matter.

[…]

Turner said Wednesday he presumed the petition contained enough names to trigger a vote, but suggested the proposal’s lack of clarity could undermine its validity, noting, for instance, that hundreds more firefighters than police officers carry the rank of “captain.”

“I don’t know what parity means,” Turner said. “Does it mean you scale everything down? If the voters vote on something, the voters need to know what they’re voting (on).”

See here and here for the background. You know how I feel about this, so you know I agree with the Mayor’s assessment of what this means. As to when the election should be held, I suppose there’s an argument for 2019 instead of this November. I’m sure we’ll get to hear that argument from the city when the firefighters file a motion to force the election this year. Council does need to approve putting the item on the ballot, along with the language of it, whether this year or next. We’ll see how that goes.

Count of firefighters’ pay parity petitions needs to be done by Friday

Or else. Not sure what follows the “or else”, but maybe we won’t have to find out.

City Secretary Anna Russell has one week to finish verifying a petition Houston firefighters submitted last summer seeking pay parity with police or risk being hauled into court, a state district judge said Friday.

Judge Dan Hinde had given Russell until Friday at 5 p.m. to verify whether the firefighters had reached the minimum threshold of 20,000 signatures needed for the item to appear before voters.

City attorneys asked the judge for an extension Friday morning, however, saying that, after a slow start, the count had reached 14,000 names and was proceeding briskly with the help of eight staffers who were assigned from other departments about two weeks ago and approved for overtime pay.

The judge denied the city’s request. However, he asked only that the firefighters’ attorneys submit a draft writ for him to issue by May 4, indicating that if he got word the count had finished before then, he would leave the paperwork unsigned.

“I understand the city has a variety of services and duties to its citizens. I don’t discount those,” Hinde said. “But it was not apparent that the city secretary was emphasizing enough the importance of the electoral franchise and referendum power, the legislative power, the citizens are entitled to.”

[…]

At the hearing Friday, Hinde asked why the count had not begun in earnest immediately after his March order was issued.

“Why didn’t she use the extra time I already gave her?” he asked Assistant City Attorney Brian Amis.

Amis said the secretary’s office began preparing the paperwork on which the formal count would be recorded on the day the judge’s order was issued, a process that includes individually numbering each signature line and stamping each page. Within a week of the order, Amis said, Russell asked Turner to approve money for overtime pay and to lend her additional staff.

Russell and her staff must verify that a sufficient number of the names on the petition are those of registered voters who live inside the city of Houston.

“With the diversion of resources from other departments, along with the expenditure of unbudgeted overtime, the city believes it can finish counting the petitions by or before next Friday,” mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said, adding it was unclear how much the effort would cost.

“We see no need for an extension,” said Troy Blakeney, an attorney for the firefighters. “We’re not standing before the court to ask that Ms. Russell be brought over here on a writ, but we think timing is really important.”

It is unclear when the petition, if validated, would appear before voters.

City attorneys have indicated that Mayor Sylvester Turner intends to schedule a vote on the petition, if it is validated, during the next municipal election cycle in November 2019. Blakeney has said, he expects to wind up in court again to accelerate the vote.

See here for the previous update. You know how I feel about this, so let me just say that if there are sufficient valid signatures to force a vote, it should happen this November. Enough is enough already, let’s get this over with so we can skip to the part that really matters, the litigation.

Judge orders firefighters’ petitions to be counted

Can’t say I’m surprised.

A state district judge on Tuesday ordered Houston’s city secretary to finish reviewing firefighters’ petition asking for pay parity with police, giving her until April 27 to validate the eight-month-old signatures.

Firefighters submitted a petition last July asking for a ballot referendum that would grant firefighters the same pay as police officers of equal rank, but City Secretary Anna Russell did not validate it in time for the November election.

Leaders of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued in December asking the court to give Russell 30 days to review the petition signatures, and last week appeared before state District Judge Dan Hinde.

Hinde did not immediately issue a ruling, but sided with firefighters on Tuesday.

“The city secretary’s continuing failure to count signatures and verify the sufficiency of the pay parity petition constitutes a continuing failure to fulfill her ministerial duty,” Hinde wrote. “The city secretary has been and remains in default of her ministerial duty.”

See here for the background. I mean, look, the petitions were delivered to City Hall last July, which is to say eight months ago. Given that there were other petitions ahead of it, I could believe that Secretary Russell might not have been able to get them checked out in time for last November, but this is ridiculous. It didn’t take nearly this long to verify the anti-HERO petitions, for example, and as I recall her staff worked overtime to do that. I think this is a lousy proposition and I plan to vote against it, but at some point the job just needs to get done.

Now if the deadline to count the valid signatures is April 27, that means this will be ticketed for November, assuming enough of the sigs do check out. (Boy, wouldn’t that be a farcical conclusion to this saga if the verdict is “sorry, you fell short”.) From a participatory democracy perspective, having this voted on in a large November turnout context is better than a single-digit May electorate. Of course, since we know someone is going to sue to have the election overturned no matter what the outcome is – there’s literally no chance that the referendum can be written in a way that is both fully explanatory and not confusing; the ballot language lawsuit can be drafted now and ready to go as soon as the vote totals are in and a suitable plaintiff can be located – I feel like we could save ourselves the trouble by just flipping a coin to determine who “wins” and then going straight to the litigation. Eventually, the Supreme Court will tell us what their preferred result is, and we can take it from there.

UPDATE: The KUHF story, which includes a copy of Judge Hinde’s ruling, confirms that the next opportunity for this to be on a ballot at this point is November.

More on the HFD sex discrimination lawsuit

Is anyone surprised that a lot more female firefighters have come forward to describe incidents of harassment at HFD since the initial story was published? Because if you are, I don’t think you’ve been paying much attention to the news over the past year or so.

Nearly 10 years after a sexual harassment scandal roiled the ranks, the Houston Fire Department remains a hostile work environment for some women, according to more than half-dozen current and former firefighters who spoke to the Houston Chronicle about workplace conditions and gender bias.

“It’s still uncomfortable,” said one longtime female HFD veteran, who like most, did not want to be named for fear of retribution. “Houston still has not embraced the diversity of women within the department.”

And while women have made gains since the incidents in 2009 led to a widespread investigation, a Department of Justice lawsuit filed recently against the city has brought renewed scrutiny to gender issues at HFD, where fewer than 4 percent of the department’s 4,000 firefighters are women.

Some women have left the department in frustration. Others stay silent, enduring daily tensions to pursue their lifelong dreams, they told the Chronicle.

“It’s a Catch-22,” said another longtime female firefighter. “Most grin and bear it. They don’t want that label, ‘she’s a problem child,’ or, ‘Don’t say anything around her or she’ll file a grievance.’

“I just want to be treated fair.”

[…]

One aspiring firefighter said she’d always wanted to join the Houston Fire Department.

She put her financial security on hold to go through the months-long academy, earning just $800 every other week. She thought she’d find a teamlike atmosphere but was met instead with instructors who she believed wanted her to fail.

She quit on the verge of graduation and found a better-paying job as a paramedic elsewhere.

“I have no desire to work for a place like that,” said the former trainee, who attended HFD’s academy within the last five years. “I’d rather drive an hour or more to a different fire department where people treat others like human beings, and you don’t get discriminated against because you weren’t born a male.”

Another woman who recently attended the academy described an atmosphere where instructors did not acknowledge women and appeared to purposely sabotage training routines to make it more difficult for them. In one instance, she said, an instructor made her carry a fully charged firehouse into a burning space in a more difficult posture than she’d been trained, and with less line available on the ground.

She’d hoped to find a “family of people that support each other,” but said she was disappointed.

She described a hostile work environment where her male colleagues routinely refer to women as “bitches,” and frequently make derogatory comments after responding to medical calls where the people they were helping were a gay or lesbian, she said.

“I see a lot of sexism and racism,” she said. “It’s really harder being a female in the fire department, point blank … You have this idea how it would be and it’s not like that at all.”

See here for the background, and click over for more, because there is more. This is what I mean when I said there are plenty of people at HFD who know who did what to whom. The higher-ups are all saying the right things – Chief Pena, the union officials, etc – but we need to hear it from the rank and file as well. If HFD wants to rid itself of the “cloud” that persists over it, there needs to be a top-to-bottom commitment to root this kind of behavior out. I guarantee you, HFD knows who the bad actors are. What are they going to do about them?

What are the elections of interest this May?

That’s a question I’m asking as well as one I’m trying to answer. Normally, there are no elections in May of any kind of year for Houston folks, though there are some for parts of Harris County and surrounding areas. This year for the uniform election date of May 5 we do have the special election in City Council District K to succeed the late CM Larry Green. The filing deadline for this is March 26, so we should know in very short order who is in the running.

We should also know by March 26 whether that firefighters pay parity proposal will be on the ballot or not. The firefighters would like to know about that, too.

There is one legislative special election on tap for May 5. State Rep. Leighton Schubert in HD13 stepped down earlier this year, so this race is to fill out the remainder of his term. That doesn’t really mean much unless the winner of that race also wins in November, in which case he or she will have a seniority advantage over all the other members of the class of 2018. If I’m reading this list correctly, there are three candidates – Democrat Cecil Webster, Republican Ben Leman, and Republican Jill Wolfskill. Webster is on the November ballot – he also ran in 2016, getting 21.4% against Schubert in a district that voted 76.8% to 20.4% for Donald Trump. Leman and Wolfskill are in the runoff for the GOP nomination. If Webster can somehow make it to the runoff for this, even with the low stakes, it would be quite the achievement.

Closer to home, I know there are elections in Pearland for Pearland City Council – they have three-year terms, so they have elections every year – and Pearland ISD – I don’t know offhand what their terms are, but as you can see on the election results page, they have those races every year as well. Dalia Kasseb, who ran a strong race for Pearland City Council last year, is making another run this year. She is on the list of TDP-endorsed Project LIFT slate, as is Al Lloyd for Pearland ISD.

There are other races on that slate, though none in the Houston area. I’ve seen ads on Facebook for a candidate running for Deer Park ISD, but at this time I know nothing about her. Ballotpedia says these are three-year terms but there isn’t a page for 2018 yet. These elections are apparently not conducted by the Harris County Clerk, and I’m not seeing anything on the DPISD Board of Trustees webpage, so I’m throwing this out to y’all – if you know anything about this, please leave a comment and let me know.

So there you have what I know about elections for this May. What am I missing? Please fill me in.

Firefighters sue to get their pay parity petitions certified

I’m just going to put this here.

Houston firefighters on Monday asked a judge to force the city secretary to validate signatures on an equal pay referendum petition that has been backlogged in City Hall for eight months.

The referendum would require firefighters to receive the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank. It was first submitted to the city in July but wasn’t validated before the November election. In December, leaders of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued, asking a judge to give City Secretary Anna Russell 30 days to count and validate the petition signatures.

State District Judge Dan Hinde did not issue an immediate ruling after a three-hour trial Monday.

City attorneys argued the firefighters’ claim lacks the urgency needed to secure a court order.

State law forced Russell last year to count a petition related to alcoholic beverages in the Heights within 30 days, after which she returned to tallying a pension-related petition to amend the city charter that her office received in April, said Assistant City Attorney Brian Amis.

The firefighters’ petition, which also would amend the charter, was submitted in July. State law sets no deadline by which charter petitions must be validated.

When neither petition was verified in time for the November 2017 ballot, Amis said, that removed any urgency behind the count, as the next municipal election will not be held until November 2019.

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s a long section in the story that goes into City Secretary Anna Russell’s process for certifying petitions and how she doesn’t take direction from the Mayor or accept help from the petitioners, both of which I think are good things. I’ll say that it feels a little ridiculous to me that this hasn’t been completed by now – I mean, if it had taken this long to count the anti-HERO petitions, that one may never have gotten on the ballot. On the other hand, maybe this isn’t the sort of thing that should be decided by an oddball sure-to-be-under-ten-percent-turnout election in May. And on the other other hand, I’m hard pressed to imagine any ballot language that won’t be seriously challenged in court regardless of the outcome, which given past history makes one wonder if it wouldn’t be more expeditious to litigate first and vote later. All I know for sure is that as with the District K special election, if we don’t have this ready for the ballot by March 26 – that is, two weeks from today – it ain’t happening in May. Good luck sorting this all out.

Feds sue city over HFD sex discrimination claims

Yikes.

The Justice Department has sued the city of Houston over sex discrimination claims launched by two female firefighters who say their male coworkers tormented them by urinating on the women’s bathroom walls and sinks and scrawling vulgar slurs on their belongings.

Male firefighters allegedly turned off the cold water in showers to scald their female coworkers and disconnected speakers to prevent women from responding to calls in a string of bad behavior that eventually escalated to death threats, according to the lawsuit.

“Far too often, women are targeted and harassed in the workplace because of their sex,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Civil Rights Division. “Employees have the right to work in an environment that is free from sex discrimination and retaliation.”

The conduct continued over time despite at least nine complaints to management, which failed to remedy the situation and allegedly created a hostile work environment for firefighters Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes.

The city did not comment on the suit, while the firefighters’ union pushed to see more evidence released in the case and decried long-standing criticism of the department.

“Dozens of firefighters cooperated in the various investigations of this incident, but unfounded criticism of Houston firefighters has continued for years,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said.

[…]

Representatives from the firefighters’ union said the lawsuit underscored the need for city officials to make public the findings of an investigation involving 40 firefighters that were polygraphed and who gave sworn statements or handwriting samples during the investigation.

“From the beginning of this controversy, Houston firefighters have wanted the perpetrator(s) of the incidents at Station 54 found and punished appropriately,” Lancton said, in an emailed statement.

The union leader emphasized that the firefighters exonerated in the course of the investigation deserved to be recognized as such.

“Former Mayor Annise Parker rightly said in 2010 that Houston firefighters were ‘unjustly under a cloud.’ Eight years later, the cloud remains,” he said.

“The time has come for authorities to release all of the evidence in this case. Without a proper conclusion, the unjust ‘cloud’ will undermine a basic tenet of our justice system – innocent until proven guilty.”

The city has since announced that it will defend itself and that it “does not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment”; you can see the city’s statement here. I thought I’d written more about this in the past, but this is the only post that I can find.

The behaviors alleged are terrible and disgusting. I can’t imagine what it was like to be Jane Draycott or Paula Keyes. The fact that a city investigation failed to find the perpetrators – the story also referenced an unsuccessful FBI investigation – is greatly disheartening, and I think the key to this. Because while it may be the case that “dozens of firefighters cooperated” in those investigations, the one thing that I know to be true is that it is firefighters who did these vile acts, and firefighters who know who did them. And neither the guilty parties nor their buddies, who surely know who they are and what they did, came forward to admit any of it.

So while there is a cloud over the department, it is for that reason that I disagree that it is “unjust”. I guarantee you, there are plenty of firefighters who know who did what and when. Maybe that information exists in the city OIG report, but it doesn’t really matter. Nothing is stopping the firefighters who know the truth from coming forward on their own and telling it. And please, don’t tell me that it would be hard or that they would put themselves at risk or anything like that. It was hard for Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes. Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes put themselves at significant risk, and they very much felt the consequences for that. The firefighters who know the truth can damn well deal with it.

So sure, the city should release its report. Maybe it will tell us things we don’t already know. But some people could tell us even more than that. It’s time they started. The #MeToo movement is ultimately about work, and the women who have been denied the opportunity to do the work they want to do, not just by the lowlifes who harass them but by those who stood by and stayed silent as it was happening. Now, at long last, is HFD’s chance to do something about that. Courthouse News, which has a copy of the lawsuit, has more.

The latest report on city finances

A little light reading for you.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Even after Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark pension reforms, the city of Houston is on pace to spend $1 billion more than it will take in over the coming decade, and must cut spending and raise revenue bring its annual budget into balance, according to an exhaustive new report.

Failing to do so, the authors state, risks letting the city inch toward insolvency with all the symptoms that accompany such a fiscal crisis: Worker layoffs, an erosion in police staffing, fewer library hours, decaying parks facilities, a hollowing out of the city as the suburbs boom.

The analysts from Philadelphia-based consulting firm PFM did not shy away from controversial recommendations, including some that would dramatically restructure city government.

Among dozens of other reforms, the authors suggest Houston should:

  • break up its mammoth Houston Public Works department and consolidate its finance, procurement, human resources, and information technology staff;
  • cut the $9.5 million annual subsidy to the Houston Zoo roughly in half;
  • shrink the Houston Fire Department by up to 845 positions through attrition and lengthen firefighters’ work weeks; reduce the number of fire stations; hire civilians to do fire inspections and take 911 calls; and raise ambulance fees;
  • hire civilians for the Houston Police Department to enable cops now doing administrative tasks to get back on patrol; free up officers’ time by arresting fewer low-level offenders and writing more tickets; use civilians to conduct crash investigations and issue non-moving traffic tickets; consolidate with Metro’s police staff, and, perhaps, local school districts’ too;
  • cut health benefits for active and retired city workers; and
  • submit trash pickup, building maintenance and street repairs to “managed competition,” giving all or part of each task to city departments or to private companies, whichever submits the most efficient proposal.
  • City Council hired PFM for $565,000 in 2016, Turner’s first year in office, to craft a 10-year financial plan. Turner made clear in comments last week, however, that he views some of the recommendations as impractical.

“When you talk about structural changes, just because it’s identified doesn’t mean it’s easily done. It’s not about taking a report and just implementing it,” he said. “There are some things that, from my vantage point, yes, we will accept. There are some things that are going to require additional study. There are some things that will be more long term. And then there are some things that we’ll never get there.”

The report is here; it’s quite long, but the executive summary is only 16 pages, so read that if you want a feel for it. At first glance, a lot of it sounds reasonable and even doable. I appreciate the fact that they recognize that revenue is part of the equation and that removing the stupid revenue cap would go a long way towards alleviating the problem. Some actions could be done by Mayoral fiat, some by Council action, and some will require negotiations with third parties and/or legislative approval. It’s always possible that a report like this becomes little more than a doorstop, but I think we’ll see at least some of it happen.

Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the city bonds

The Chron circles back to where they started this endorsement season.

The spotlight of public attention has focused on the billion dollar pension bond referendum, Proposition A, whose passage is absolutely critical to Houston’s financial future. But if you’re a Houston voter, you’ll also find on your ballot four bond issues that will pay for a long list of projects and equipment essential to our city government.

Proposition B would authorize the city to borrow $159 million for the police and fire departments. The Houston Police Department needs the money for everything from improvements to its training academy to pouring new pavement at HPD facilities. The Houston Fire Department would use its funds to pay for renovating and expanding some of its fire stations. And both departments need to tap the bond money to update their aging fleets of cars, trucks and ambulances.

Proposition C would authorize $104 million in bonds for park improvements, including upgrades to 26 of the 375 parks around the city, making sure they are usable, safe and fun. To take one example: Baseball and soccer are popular with both young and older athletes in many neighborhoods, but many city ball fields are equipped with old wooden light poles. The bond issue would allow the Houston Parks and Recreation Department to replace them with new metal poles, energy efficient lights and underground wiring. The upgrade would also include a remote control feature that would reduce personnel costs.

Proposition D would raise $109 million for a variety of public health and solid waste disposal expenses. Much of this money would go to renovating and rehabilitating old multi-service centers, which are used as everything from health clinics to election polling places. Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department, the people who pick up our garbage, would spend their share of this money on a “to do” list that includes a new disposal facility and a storm water mitigation project.

Proposition E would go a long way toward upgrading library services throughout the city with a $123 million bond issue, directly benefiting at least 24 of the city’s 42 libraries. Not everyone can afford a home computer, yet in this digital age access to a computer is crucial to success. That’s why it’s such a shame that so many of Houston’s neighborhood libraries are in disrepair. The bond proceeds will replace the roofs and repair the exteriors of ten libraries and will rebuild four neighborhood libraries.

Maybe you’re wondering why these propositions don’t include money for flood control after Hurricane Harvey. It’s a logical question with an equally logical answer. In order to appear on the ballot in November, the plans for these bond issues were presented to city council in early August, weeks before the storm hit.

Beyond that, flood control in the Houston area has mainly been the responsibility of the county and federal governments. When voters ask why more hasn’t been done to mitigate flooding, those are questions that need to be addressed mainly to the county judge and commissioners as well as our elected representatives in Washington.

The Chron had endorsed these bond issues in their first such editorial of the cycle, but that one was primarily about the pension bonds, and only mentioned the others in passing. You read what these are about, it’s hard to understand why anyone would oppose them, but a lot of people don’t know much about them, and of course some people will always oppose stuff like this. As you know, I believe the bonds will pass, but we’re all just guessing. We’ll know soon enough.

The fire department’s needs

This is a conversation we need to have, but it’s one we need to dig into and work all the way through.

Fire Chief Sam Pena gave City Council a bleak assessment Tuesday of his department’s readiness to respond to significant rainstorms, or even daily fire and medical calls, saying a ramshackle fleet and inadequate training are putting the safety of citizens and firefighters at risk.

The Houston Fire Department must double its annual spending on new engines, ladders and ambulances, the chief said, and must ramp up its purchases of water rescue apparatuses and the training.

The department has a “moral and legal” duty, Pena said, to provide safe and effective vehicles and equipment to its 4,100 firefighters and the residents they serve.

Instead, he said, engines are catching fire on the scene or at stations; one dropped a gas tank en route to a call. Another time, he said, an ambulance broke down while carrying a cardiac patient to a hospital. Reserve vehicles have to stand in for broken-down front-line apparatus 85 percent of the time, he said.

“We haven’t allocated the right resources to ensure we’re preparing our firefighters to do the job we’re asking them to do,” said Pena, who became chief last December. “What Harvey put a spotlight on is the lack of resources that we’ve had, but it’s a reality that we’re living as a department every day. We have to make a decision about what we want our fire department to do and what we’re willing to fund.”

[…]

On Tuesday, he told the council’s public safety committee that HFD had received funding for 20 of the 47 engines it sought in the last three budget cycles. It also got 10 of 19 requested ladder or tower trucks, and 36 of 75 requested ambulances, he said.

The city has budgeted $5.5 million to $5.8 million in each of the next five years to purchase fire vehicles, but Pena said $11 million is needed annually to ensure HFD meets his recommendation of replacing 16 ambulances, nine engines and four ladder or tower trucks each year.

If voters pass the $495 million city bonds on the November ballot, officials said the department will get $10.8 million a year for five years to renew its fleet.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said it has been evident since he took office that HFD – along with police and city trash haulers – have been working with inadequate vehicles.

“Today Chief Pena painted a picture I know well. We are going to meet these needs as much as we can with the limited city revenues we have, hence the importance of the public safety bonds that the voters are asked to approve,” Turner said. “This is just one of the steps we need to take to get us where we need to be.”

See here for some background. The bond issue on the ballot would help the Fire Department replace old equipment, but it would not be enough to also buy more flood-rescue gear or pay for training on it. That will require further spending from the city, including from general revenue, at a time when there’s not a lot of spare change lying around and the city’s revenue stream is hamstrung by the stupid revenue cap. We should, as I have said here and in that earlier post, have a real discussion about what HFD needs and how we’re going to pay for it, and I trust everyone agrees that kicking the can down the road isn’t a great idea. But that discussion needs to include how HFD spends its money now, because as the Chron editorial board reminds us, their track record on fiscal matters is not good.

Tensions between City Hall and Houston firefighters have simmered for years, and things finally boiled over. Firefighters are frustrated because pension reform cut their benefits; they haven’t received a raise in years, and City Hall has failed to spend enough on much-needed high-water vehicles and other equipment.

Those grievances can sound pretty convincing until you look at things from the perspective of a taxpayer.

The firefighter pension system was unsustainable and needed to be reformed. In June, the firefighter union rejected a 9.5 percent pay raise as insufficient. And City Hall has budgeted more than $5 million per year for the next five years to purchase new fire equipment.

Fire Chief Sam Peña told City Council this week he wants double that amount.

Perhaps Peña should first ask his own staff for cash. HFD’s Life Safety Bureau alone racked up $5.6 million in overtime, according to a recent city audit, all while fudging building inspection numbers. And three years ago – under a different chief – a single year of unexpected overtime blew an $8 million hole in the fire department’s finances. Five percent of that budget gap was due solely to firefighters taking off the first weekend of hunting season. (Note to Peña: Deer season opens Nov. 4).

The board renews its call again for a blue ribbon panel to review HFD’s operations from top to bottom, noting that while the department is geared towards fighting a declining number of fires, the vast majority of the calls it receives are for emergency medical services, for which fire trucks are dispatched. I’m prepared to spend more money on HFD to bring them up to speed on the things we need from them, but I want to know that we’re using that money wisely. If we’re not also prepared to answer that question, then I don’t know when we ever will be. The Press has more.

Endorsement watch: The bonds

Endorsement season has officially begun.

The key referendum, Proposition A, is a solution to Houston’s potentially disastrous pension problem. A complex deal ushered through the Texas Legislature by Mayor Sylvester Turner would reduce the $8.2 billion unfunded pension burden now carried by Houston taxpayers to $5.2 billion. Union leaders representing police officers and municipal employees have agreed to sacrifice benefits worth roughly $1.8 billion. But the whole arrangement depends upon voters approving a $1 billion bond issuance, 1 of 5 city bonds on the ballot.

The pension bond wouldn’t raise taxes, nor would it increase the public debt. Houston already owes this money to its retired employees; this deal will take care of a debt that’s already on the books. The bonds will be paid off over the course of three decades. By coincidence, this happens to be a good time for the city to borrow money. This is like refinancing your mortgage when interest rates are low.

On the other hand, Turner bluntly and accurately told the Chronicle’s editorial board, if the pension obligation bonds go down, “it’s worse than the financial impact of Harvey.” Before this deal was struck, our city government was staring at the grim prospect of laying off more than 2,000 employees, about 10 percent of its workforce, a cut that would almost certainly impact police and firefighters.

[…]

Meanwhile, four other bond proposals would pay for facilities and equipment at everything from police and fire stations to city parks and libraries. At a time when our police officers are driving around in cars that are more than a decade old, we voters need to pass these capital improvement bonds.

The campaign for the bonds is underway, and I do expect them to pass. But this is a weird year, and turnout is going to be well below what we’re used to – and we ain’t used to particularly robust turnout – so anything can happen. The big task in this election for all campaigns is just making sure people know they need to go vote. If you’re reading this site, you already know that much. I say vote for the bonds as well, for all the reasons the Chron gives.

HFD and disaster preparedness

There’s a lot here to think about, and to do something about.

The Houston Fire Department’s limitations quickly became clear as Harvey’s floodwaters rose.

Just one high-water rescue vehicle. Decades-old evacuation boats. Sparse training for swift-water rescues. And limited staffing after an 11th-hour decision not to call in major reinforcements to face the catastrophic storm.

The department had been warned. Lethal flooding two years ago exposed shortcomings and prompted sweeping recommendations to improve future responses.

And yet, when firefighters rushed fearlessly into Harvey’s currents in late August, they were again hobbled by a lack of resources, old equipment and a shortage of manpower ready to go when the storm hit, according to a Chronicle review of internal reports and emails, and dozens of interviews with firefighters and other officials.

The review found a department – and a city – that failed to follow the hard-earned lessons of previous storms, even as one of the worst in U.S. history descended on the region.

“Civilians had to step up – which was a great thing – but that’s not their job,” one high-ranking fire official said. “It’s our job to protect and serve the public. We couldn’t do that because we didn’t have what we needed.”

Fire Chief Samuel Peña, who stepped in to lead the department in December, defended the response and commended his firefighters, who performed 7,000 rescues and answered more than 15,000 calls for help during the first five days of the storm.

But he acknowledged that Harvey exposed shortcomings in the department’s fleet and training.

“Harvey punched us in the mouth,” Peña said. “No municipality is ever going to have the number of resources to be able to respond to a catastrophic incident the size of Harvey. But we know the anticipated risk in this community. We know that the 500-year flood is going to come again next year … We don’t have the adequate resources to address even the expected risk in this community.”

Critics, however, say the department’s response suffered from more than neglect.

“Anyone with common sense could see with relative certainty there was going to be an enormous rescue effort that was going to be required following the impact of Hurricane Harvey,” said Jim Brinkley, director of occupational health and safety for the International Association of Fire Fighters. “It’s expected a department would allocate enough resources – in terms of staffing alone – to make sure they’re capable of responding.”

There are a lot of reasons why HFD’s ability to deal with mass flooding events isn’t any more advanced now than it was a few years ago, before such things had become annual occurrences. You can come to your own conclusions about who shoulders how much of the responsibility for that. I would just point out that any effective solution to this is going to cost money. Equipment costs money. Training costs money. Firefighters who have better training can earn more money, if not here then elsewhere. We can and should review how HFD uses the resources it has now – as we know, most of the demands on the department are for emergency medical services and not for fire, and HFD has a track record of being profligate with overtime – but there’s only so far you can squeeze before you start displacing things you’d rather keep. If we want HFD to be better at responding to these events, we’re going to have to make an investment in them, and not just a one-time investment. That means we the voters are going to have to come to grips with the need to spend more money, or with the reality that we’re going to keep getting what we’re already paying for. If there are hard choices to be made by our leaders, we have to be prepared for what that means to us.

Mayor seeks one-year tax hike for Harvey cleanup

This stuff isn’t going to pay for itself, you know.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask City Council to approve an 8.9 percent hike in the city’s tax rate this fall to help Houston recover from Tropical Storm Harvey, in what would be the first tax rate hike from City Hall in more than two decades.

The average Houston homeowner would pay $118 more in property taxes next year under the proposal, which will begin a series of public hearings later this month and reach a formal vote in mid-October.

The tax rate would rise from 58.64 cents per $100 of appraised value – the lowest city tax rate since the late 1980s – to 63.87 cents. That was the rate from 2009 through 2013, when a 13-year-old voter-imposed limit on Houston’s property tax collections first began forcing City Council to cut the rate each year to avoid bringing in more revenue than was allowed.

Turner is able to propose an increase beyond the strictures of the revenue cap – allowing the city to collect an extra $113 million for one year – because Harvey placed Houston under a federal disaster declaration.

“If this is not an emergency, I don’t know what is. What we’re able to recoup from one year, the $113 million, will not even be enough to cover the expenses we will have incurred,” Turner said Monday. “What we don’t get from the feds we’ll have to come up with ourselves. I would be not doing my job if I did not advance it.”

Debris removal could cost more than $200 million and will require Houston to foot 10 percent of the bill without being reimbursed. The city also lost 334 vehicles to floodwaters and saw its municipal courts complex, city hall and its adjacent annex and two wastewater treatment plants knocked offline.

[…]

If adopted, the higher rate would take effect only for homeowners’ January 2018 tax bills. Come the following January, the emergency period would end and the city’s tax rate again would be dictated by the voter-imposed cap, which limits the annual growth of Houston’s property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston and key revenue cap proponent, said he wants to speak with the mayor to remind him that homeowners’ assessed values are rising, meaning a tax rate hike would amount to a double increase.

Bettencourt refrained from outright criticism of the proposal and praised much of the mayor’s response to the storm. He urged caution on the tax proposal, however.

“The rate is just one half of the equation. The other half is how much the value has gone up,” he said. “This is a delicate public policy issue because we’ve got Houstonians that are literally flooded out of their homes and many people have been affected so they’re not in a position to pay the bill easily, much less if it increases.”

The average Houstonian in a $225,000 home with a standard homestead exemption sends $1,321 to City Hall annually. Turner’s proposal would see that bill rise by $117.86 next year.

Let’s be clear about a couple of things. Thanks to the revenue cap charter amendment, this can only be a one-year increase. The rate will be what we had from 2008 to 2013, so it’s not like this is some unprecedented assessment. The city can’t run a deficit, and it can’t borrow money without getting authorization from the voters. The property tax rate is basically the only mechanism the city has to raise this kind of money. The city will get some federal funds, but it may not have control over their appropriation, and some of those funds as noted in the story are contingent on the city putting up money as well. Lord only knows what the state will pay for, and the county will do its own thing.

The point here is that the city has some big unexpected bills to pay. It has to pay for a lot of overtime for police officers and firefighters who were rescuing people during the floods and who are dealing with aftereffects like traffic control. It has to pay for a lot of overtime to Solid Waste employees who are working to pick up the enormous piles of trash around the city. Your taxes are going up by a couple hundred bucks to pay for this. If you have a problem with that, I don’t know what to tell you, other than I can’t abide that kind of thinking.

Some people will say that we should find costs to cut instead. I will remind you that the vast majority of the city’s expenses are for personnel, and in this particular case the extra unbudgeted expenses are largely for overtime pay. Unless you think all these people should have worked for free, this argument is nonsense. Every time a government entity faces a budget shortfall, I hear people justify cutting programs and services as “shared sacrifice”. In my experience, most of the people who say that aren’t themselves sacrificing much of anything. The difference between those cuts and this rate increase is that this time the bulk of the sacrifice is being felt by a different crowd. If you don’t like it, maybe keep that in mind for the next time.

To address Sen. Bettencourt’s concern, I’m fine with exempting the people who were flooded out from the rate increase. If you filed a FEMA claim, you get to be assessed at the current rate. As for the Council members quoted in the story who say they can’t go along with this, I say no trash gets collected in their neighborhoods until every last piece of Harvey debris has been carted off. There’s a little shared sacrifice for you. The Press has more.

No charter amendments on the fall ballot

Just bonds, school board and HCC races, and the mostly boring constitutional amendments. Oh, and Heights Alcohol 2.0, if you live there.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston voters will face $1.5 billion in city bonds and nine community college or school board races this November, but will not be asked whether to give firefighters a pay raise or change the pension plans given to new city employees.

Monday was the last day on which candidates could file for the November ballot, and on which local governments could call an election. That means the clock ran out on the citizen-submitted petitions seeking the change in city pensions and backing the firefighters’ push for pay “parity” with police officers of corresponding rank.

There are exceptions to Monday’s deadline. Houston ISD trustee Manuel Rodriguez’s death in July means candidates looking to fill his seat have until Sept. 6 to file for office. Candidates who meet today’s filing deadline also can withdraw from the ballot as late as Aug. 28.

In broad terms, however, the fall election campaign is set.

[…]

State law sets no deadline by which petitions seeking changes to a city charter must be tallied.

“We’ve always done first one in, first one out,” City Secretary Anna Russell said late Friday. “We are still working on the 401(k) (petition) as we do our regular work.”

The petitions, if validated by Russell’s office, could be included on a May ballot.

And I think that’s fine, and will likely allow for a more focused discussion of that issue as there won’t be anything else for Houston voters to consider; the 401(k) item no longer has anyone advocating it, so the pay parity proposal would be all there is. Given the lack of city elections on this November’s ballot, it’s not clear that a May 2018 referendum would have much less turnout, especially if both sides spend money on it. I’m sure the firefighters wanted their issue to be voted on now, but having to wait till May is hardly an abomination.

I hope to have a finalized list of candidates for HISD and HCC soon. HISD has some candidate information here, but there’s not a similar page for HCC. I’ve got a query in to find out who’s running for what and will report back later. I’m starting on the interviews for 2017, and will have an Election 2017 page up in the next week or so.

Firefighters complain about petition counting process

Oh, good Lord.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston firefighters are accusing Mayor Sylvester Turner of standing between them and a voter-approved pay raise by failing to ensure a petition they submitted last month is certified in time to appear on the November ballot.

Turner rejected any suggestion that he has involved himself in the City Secretary’s effort to verify their petition, and his office on Thursday said an offer by the fire union to cover any staffing costs needed to count their signatures is being examined as a possible attempt to improperly influence a public official.

[…]

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 president Marty Lancton accused the mayor of seeking to run out the clock, and said the speed with which firefighters gathered the required 20,000 signatures shows that voters want a say on the matter quickly.

“The mayor has the ability to provide Anna Russell with the resources with which to count this. He has not done it,” said Lancton. “I’m simply trying to find a way to get these counted. Firefighters are just asking for fair treatment and for there to be a resolution.”

The mayor dismissed the criticism.

“She’s the one who’s doing the counting, she verifies the signatures. That’s the process,” Turner said. “No one runs the city secretary’s shop but the city secretary.”

[…]

Accusations aside, Turner said that he is proceeding as if the item will reach a November vote, and has worked to get his message out by appearing on radio programs and discussing the issue publicly. The annual cost of the proposal, he said, could be “well north of $60 million.”

Russell, for her part, said neither the mayor nor anyone from his office has spoken to her about the matter. The process of verifying signatures, she said, must be completed in the spare minutes between her staff’s daily tasks of preparing ordinances, motions, contracts and the council agenda.

My head hurts. Why don’t we just assume that Anna Russell is going to do the job she’s been doing since God was in short pants and give her some room? If for some reason she can’t get it done in time for the filing deadline for November, then get it done for next May. Am I missing something here?

David Feldman, a former city attorney who is representing the fire union, said Russell should make an exception in this instance because he views the pension-related petition she now is reviewing as irrelevant.

That petition, which was submitted in April, calls for all city employees hired beginning next year to be given pensions similar to 401(k)s rather than traditional “defined benefit” pensions. Turner’s pension reform bill that passed the Legislature this year, however, specified what pension new hires would receive, Feldman said, and state law trumps local charters.

“If, in fact, they have 20,000 signatures and she certifies it, it can’t go on a ballot because it’s an unlawful measure,” Feldman said. “That’s where the tipping of the scales comes into play. That communication can be made to her. It obviously has not been made to her.”

Bernstein said Feldman’s reading is wrong. He pointed to a similar case out of Galveston in which the court ruled that a city secretary had a “ministerial duty” to validate a petition and forward it to the City Council, notwithstanding her view that its content conflicted with existing laws.

State law “does not give the City Secretary any discretionary duties,” a state appellate court held in that case. “Any complaints about the proposed amendment’s validity will be decided only if the voters approve the proposed charter amendment.”

Feldman stepped into the anti-HERO petition counting efforts in 2015, insisting that they needed to be checked for fraudulent signatures after Russell had certified that there were enough of them. Seemed like a reasonable argument at the time, but as we know the Supreme Court did not buy it, on grounds of those “magisterial duties” which dictated that she count ’em and that was that. And to answer my own question above, the one thing that could prevent the firefighters’ referendum from getting a vote in May would be having some other charter amendment on the ballot this fall. I had been wondering about that other petition effort, since the originator of it has since said the passage of the pension reform bill – the same one that has the firefighters so upset now – made her effort unnecessary. But if they still need to be counted, then I don’t know what happens next. Like I said, my head hurts.

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.

Firefighters turn in their petitions

Good for them, but boy is this thing a train wreck.

Houston firefighters delivered over 32,000 signatures to City Hall Monday in support of putting a ballot initiative on the November election mandating parity in pay between firefighter and police-officer ranks.

[…]

“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 morning. “We now are asking the voters to help Houston fire fighters because the city refuses to do so.”

Former Houston City Attorney Dave Feldman, who is advising the petition effort, said a formal cost estimate of the initiative if approved in November has not been determined.

Using average figures for the cost of police and fire personnel without regard to rank, increasing fire base pay to match that of police would cost roughly $40 million in the current fiscal year. The city finance department projects annual budget deficits of more than $100 million for the next five years.

See here for the background, and a long comment thread. I mean look, this isn’t a proposal right now, it’s an idea. There are literally no details. If one were to run for office on this idea, one would expect to be questioned about basic things, like how much will this cost, and how will the city match job titles across two differently-structured departments. Anyone who provided the answers the firefighters are giving now would not be taken seriously, to put it mildly. In addition, while a candidate for office would have until November to come up with satisfying responses, the firefighters have until the end of August, at which time referendum language would have to be written and approved by City Council.

And what do you think that referendum language might say, based on what we know so far? Think of the recent history of ballot referenda and all the ensuing litigation over said language, and ask yourself if there is any possible wording that will satisfy both the proponents and opponents of this idea. The ballot language lawsuit practically writes itself – it will just be a matter of finding the right taxpayers to serve as plaintiffs. If it is written with sufficient detail to explain how it will be done it will be attacked as too complicated for anyone to understand, and if it is stated simply it will be derided as vague to the point of meaninglessness. This is a bad idea on so many levels, and you can take it to the bank that it will be tied up in court for years to come. The Press has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the full Chron story. I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

Firefighters petition for a raise

Whatever.

Houston firefighters are launching a campaign to place on item on the November ballot asking voters to mandate parity in pay between corresponding firefighter and police-officer ranks.

The petition drive to amend the city charter, slated to launch Saturday morning, follows the fire union’s decision last month to sue the city over stalled contract talks, alleging Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration failed to negotiate in good faith.

“I don’t know what else to do. We’re trying to find a fair and reasonable solution that affects 4,100 members and their families,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. “Let’s let the voters decide what’s fair and we’ll see.”

[…]

A 1975 City Council motion did set the goal of achieving parity in the base pay of equivalent ranks in the public safety departments, and the topic spurred regular fights throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Typically, firefighters and their supporters on council were in the position of working to ensure their salaries kept pace with police pay, though they were not always successful.

Parity was regularly mentioned into the mid-2000s, but the late 1998 contract negotiated by the newly recognized police union began to dismantle that system, recalled Mark Clark, executive director of the Houston Police Officers Union.

That police contract, Clark said, began adjusting HPD’s personnel structure so that the city could grant raises to, for example, 38 police captains without having to also boost the salaries of more than 120 fire personnel of corresponding rank.

“I know they’re desperate and they’re my friends, but this is a non-starter,” Clark said of the firefighters’ petition drive. “They’ve got an important job, but police and firefighters do not have the same job, and their rank structures are completely different. Just to come in and say, ‘We want what they’ve got’ – certainly I understand asking, but where in the world would the city of Houston come up with the kind of money that it would take?”

Apparently, something like $40 million per year, according to the story. This is an easy No vote for me, if it comes to one. We elect representatives to make these decisions, and it is generally my preference for that system to be allowed to do its thing. There’s a place for letting the voters decide on things, but this is not one of them. The cost, the difficulty in setting up a system to match job ranks, the fact that this is an obvious retaliatory move for the recent political setbacks the firefighters have experienced, those are also factors. I have no idea what happens from here, but if this does get on the ballot it will be interesting to see how a campaign plays out. The potential for it to get ugly is very high.

Firefighters’ lawsuit over pension reform law tossed

There it goes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state district judge on Friday dismissed Houston firefighters’ lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the city’s pension reform package, removing a potential barrier to the city’s efforts to solve a 16-year fiscal crisis.

State District Judge Patricia Kerrigan granted the city’s request to dismiss the case while denying firefighters’ motion to temporarily block the state law, known as SB2190, from going into effect Saturday.

[…]

Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund Chairman David Keller, meanwhile, said he was disappointed, adding that the board would discuss next steps with its legal team.

Kerrigan’s order gives the pension board the option to refile its lawsuit, which argued the reform law infringes on the fund’s exclusive right to select its own actuaries and choose the actuarial assumptions that will be used to determine contributions into the pension system.

See here for the background. I presume this will get appealed, but I kind of doubt it will get anywhere. One may wonder how it is that the relationship between the firefighters, who endorsed Turner for Mayor, and the Mayor has gotten so combative. I suspect it is more likely that the firefighters believed that despite Turner’s promises about pension reform he didn’t really mean to affect their pensions than it is that Turner was dishonest with them about what he intended to do. The firefighters, with some justification, have felt invulnerable for a long time. Having that come crashing down around them has got to be a tough thing to take. One also wonders how much previous Mayors, nearly all of whom have had tumultuous relationships with the firefighters, are getting a bit of grim satisfaction out of this. I mean, if the firefighters had ratified the contract agreement that their leadership agreed to with Mayor Parker in 2014, and if they had worked with Mayor Parker to pass a pension reform plan back in 2013, we wouldn’t be having any of this conversation now. Maybe they wouldn’t be any better off than they are now, but it’s hard to see how it would be any worse for them. I know, hindsight is 20-20, but surely some of this was foreseeable.

Firefighters sue city over contract negotiations

These are busy days for the HPFFA.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s fire union sued the city Wednesday alleging Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration failed to act in good faith during contract negotiations, exacerbating tensions between firefighters and City Hall.

The lawsuit filed in state district court came just two days before firefighters’ “evergreen” labor agreement with the city expires, at which point local and state law will govern their employment until a new deal is reached.

Those employment terms – unanimously approved by City Council Wednesday morning – are less favorable than those in the evergreen.

Turner said he offered to extend the more generous arrangement another 30 days while negotiations continued, but the fire union preferred to resolve the issue in court.

“When you say no, what do you expect a city to do?” Turner said before council voted to amend local ordinance. “They made their choice.”

A letter provided by the mayor’s office shows the city on May 12 proposed extending the collective bargaining agreement by 15 days. Three days later, firefighters declared an impasse, allowing them to request an arbitrator to settle the contract dispute.

The city declined that option, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said, but agreed to mediation, which began last week.

[…]

South Texas College of Law Houston Professor Richard Carlson said the vagueness of state law makes it difficult to assess firefighters’ chance of success.

“Our law is still very uncertain, and when you throw in the fact that public employees can’t strike anyway, it’s hard to say what the practical outcome in any of these cases is,” Carlson said.

It’s been a busy couple of months for the firefighters, and not in a good way. They lost the fight over the pension reform bill in the Lege, and subsequently filed a lawsuit over it. This fight was over their collective bargaining agreement with the city, which expired three years ago. I’m not exactly sure what they were hoping to accomplish with their negotiating tactics, but it appears they didn’t get what they wanted. I don’t know what will happen with these lawsuits or the contract talks, but I get the sense that the firefighters have lost some goodwill. It’s more than a little incredible that no one on Council voted against the less-favorable employment terms for them. They’re big players in city elections, so either they now have a lot of former friends or they have a problem of image or communications or something that they might want to consider addressing. I don’t know how to advise them other than to say they ought to give this all some thought. The Press has more.

We need better fire inspections

Not good.

The Houston Fire Department division responsible for ensuring building safety keeps inadequate records, does not examine buildings on a regular schedule and inflated its inspection numbers, all while exceeding its overtime budget, according to an audit released by the city controller’s office Thursday.

The audit for fiscal years 2015 and 2016 is the latest in a series of blistering critiques of the Life Safety Bureau and casts doubt on whether the city is complying with its fire code.

Just 526 of Houston’s more than 5,000 apartment buildings were inspected in the last two fiscal years, well below the bureau’s goal of 470 apartment inspections per month. There is also no evidence the city inspected Bush Intercontinental, Hobby or Ellington airports within the last two years.

Many of the 28 high-risk problems – from an incomplete inspection database to poor job training – were identified by the controller’s office more than a decade ago.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s when, unfortunately, something happens,” City Controller Chris Brown said. “We need to make sure that we don’t let this one go another 12 years without any action.”

Fire Chief Samuel Peña, who was appointed last year, said he welcomed the audit and has pledged to make a series of changes.

“Nobody likes to be told their baby’s ugly, but right now there’s a lot of need,” Peña said.

There’s a copy of the audit in the story if you want to see it for yourself. I don’t think there’s anything that isn’t fixable, but saftey inspections are a big deal with potentially many lives at stake, so HFD needs to get this right. Chief Peña has his work cut out for him. The Press has more.

Year Two for Mayor Turner

Year One was busy, but a lot of what was done this year depends on what happens next year.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Tasked last year with distinguishing himself from a crowded field of mayoral candidates, Sylvester Turner styled himself as a progressive with expansive policy goals.

He pledged to boost wages, improve educational opportunities and implement a new road repair job training program, stressing that Houston’s future depends on pairing such initiatives with core services improvements.

“I am bullish on Houston,” Turner would repeat, radiating optimism in the face of a tight budget and looming pension crisis.

A year into office, however, the mayor has set aside much of that to-do list in favor of an ambitious but moderate “back to basics” approach.

Pension reform – a topic he shied away from on the campaign circuit – now is the linchpin in Turner’s two-year plan, and he is loath to discuss much else.

That focus has paid off in the form of a reform package that he says will eliminate the underfunding of Houston’s three retirement systems in 30 years and limit the city’s exposure to market downturns.

Crucially, the plan has received buy-in from the fire, police and municipal pension boards, as well as praise from experts.

“When you look at where we were on Jan. 1, 2016, on pensions and look at where we are today,” Turner said recently, “there is no question that we have come a long, long way from where we started.”

The deal now must earn approval from the Texas Legislature, which controls Houston’s pension systems.

[…]

If Turner is successful, however, he intends to spend his political capital – earned, principally, from pension reform and closing this year’s $160 million budget gap – on campaigning to lift Houston’s limit on property tax collections.

The voter-approved revenue cap was instituted in 2004 and limits the increase in the city’s annual property tax collections to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

Turner is not shy about pitching projects he would take on, absent the revenue cap, such as expanding the Houston Police Department by 540 officers by 2020. This plan may take on even more urgency, as HPD has seen a sharp spike in the number of officers filing papers indicating they plan to retire in the first half of 2017.

“We need more police officers. We need more equipment. We need more EMS units. We need more training,” Turner said in September, after a southwest Houston shooting wounded nine. “You can’t keep lowering the property tax rate because of this revenue cap and expect the city to be fully equipped with all of the assets that are needed.”

I’m pretty sure there’s more than one person on Team Turner who is grinding their teeth at the “back to basics” usage, since that was very much not Turner’s campaign slogan. Be that as it may, the general formulation is correct. Turner spent a lot of time this year working on a pension deal, and what he does next is tied to his success at getting the necessary legislation passed to implement that deal. And if he is successful, then the rest of 2017 will largely be focused on amending the revenue cap. If he can get both of those things done, then the sky is the limit and anything he wants to do is on the table. If not, it isn’t fatal, but it does leave him stuck. How much time can he spend on other things if he still needs to work on getting these things done? I’m sure he’d rather not have to find out.

How likely is Turner to get the pension legislation through? I have no idea, but if there’s anyone in a position to do it, it’s Turner. This is one of those times when experience really matters. No guarantees, because the Lege doesn’t work that way, but if anyone knows how to navigate these waters, it’s Turner. I should note that the pension bills aren’t the only thing on the city’s legislative wish list for 2017. Most of the specific items are pretty narrow and wonky, but the overriding principles laid out in the first few pages will keep the lobbying team busy, primarily I fear on defense. But if you want to know what the city does and doesn’t want from Austin next year, there’s your reference guide.

One more thing:

[Bill] King, last year’s mayoral runner-up, said he is considering challenging Turner, depending on his health and how pension reform plays out.

“If he ends up not solving the pension problem – which he promised he would do – then I think somebody needs to step in and save the city from going bankrupt,” King said.

King, who would like to see Houston switch from defined benefit to defined contribution plans similar to 401(k)s, has gotten under the skin of Turner and his staff by sending regular email blasts criticizing the city, including on inauguration day, and holding occasional press conferences.

“The campaign is over, and the total focus should be on meeting the needs of all Houstonians in their moment of crisis,” the mayor tweeted in April, after King criticized the city’s flood response.

I get those emails, too. You can probably guess what my level of interest in them is. King is certainly able to be the next Ben Hall if he wants to – he’s got the money for it, and apparently the lack of anything better to do. The question is, what has Turner done so far to lose anyone’s support? Based on how things have gone so far, I’d say not much. But hey, keep hope alive.