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layoffs

By the way, City Council passed the budget

In the end, this was pretty boring. Which is a good thing.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston city council approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year with little commotion Wednesday, authorizing a spending plan that was scrambled at the last minute by developments at the Legislature and a judge’s ruling that the voter-approved Proposition B is unconstitutional.

The council voted 12-4 in favor of Turner’s budget after approving a series of amendments during a nearly seven-hour session. The budget covers city spending for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

About half the spending — $2.53 billion — will come out of the city’s tax- and-fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day core operations, including public safety, trash pickup, parks and libraries. The city is set to spend about 1.9 percent more than it is projected to spend during the current fiscal year.

The remaining spending will come out of “enterprise” funds, which are supported by fees, including the Houston Airport System, and city utilities, which run on residents’ water bills.

[…]

Also complicating the budget was a bill passed by the Legislature that limits the fees telecommunication and cable companies pay cities to use their rights of way. That opened a spending gap of more than $16 million, according to city budget officials.

Wednesday’s budget approval followed consideration of more than 30 amendments proposed by council members.

Among the amendments approved were proposals to create new finance transparency requirements, change how the city sets its next budget and commission studies that could change how the city’s fleet management and solid waste departments operate.

In the end, there were no layoffs thanks to Prop B getting tossed by the courts. That could still get reversed on appeal so it’s not a settled matter, but for now it’s where we are. A respite from that drama, no matter how brief, is welcome.

Prop B layoffs rescinded

No Prop B, no need for layoffs. Funny how that works.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council on Wednesday formally reversed the 220 firefighter layoffs and hundreds of demotions it approved earlier this year, making official Mayor Sylvester Turner’s pledge not to lay off or demote any firefighters in the aftermath of a judge’s ruling that Proposition B is unconstitutional.

Before a state district judge threw out Prop B, the voter-approved charter amendment granted firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority. Turner warned that Prop B would require layoffs to offset the cost of the raises, a point hotly disputed by the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. City council voted in April to send firefighters 60-day layoff notices, which the panel unanimously rescinded Wednesday.

The council also voted to reverse more than 400 demotions within the Houston Fire Department. The layoff notices had gone to the lowest-ranking firefighters, initially requiring the city to fill in those positions from the top down through demotions.

“This puts everything back the way it existed prior to that vote,” Turner said.

The city also had sent layoff notices to 47 municipal employees, but Turner already had rescinded those unilaterally because those layoffs did not require council approval.

Councilman Dwight Boykins asked Turner if the layoff reversal would impact Fire Chief Sam Peña’s proposed department restructuring, which would move HFD from a four-shift to three-shift model — a move the union opposes. Turner confirmed that Wednesday’s vote has no bearing on the proposed shift change.

Councilwoman Brenda Stardig also asked Turner if the city plans to recoup back pay granted to firefighters before Prop B was ruled unconstitutional. Some department employees received raises the week before the judge’s ruling.

Turner said his administration is “addressing how to deal with that issue,” but in the meantime he sees the raises as a “credit on future negotiations.” The mayor said last month that he did not intend to “claw back” funds from any firefighter.

Obviously, this isn’t the end. We’re about to have an election that will re-litigate this whole thing – though don’t expect anyone to give a plausible answer to how they would have handled this all differently – and that court ruling has been appealed to the 14th Court of Appeals. But in a real sense, this is over. Whatever happens next, it will occur in a context of Prop B not having happened. So maybe now, at least for a little while, we can talk about something else.

Prop B ruled unconstitutional

Oh, my.

A state district judge on Wednesday ruled Proposition B, the voter-approved measure that grants Houston firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority, unconstitutional and void.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought in November by the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which contended that the city charter amendment conflicts with the Texas Constitution.

In her ruling, state District Judge Tanya Garrison found that Chapter 174 of the local government code preempts Prop B. The city, which was named in the police union’s suit, has alleged that the parity measure section conflicts with a provision of Chapter 174 tying compensation for firefighters and police officers to that of comparable private sector employees.

Mayor Sylvester Turner briefly stopped the weekly city council meeting to announce the ruling. The fire union quickly announced it would appeal.

After the council meeting, Turner said the 60-day layoff notices he proposed and council approved sending in recent weeks to 220 firefighters and more than 110 fire cadets and municipal workers to help close a budget deficit exacerbated by Prop. B would be rescinded, along with hundreds of proposed demotions within HFD.

Turner cast the ruling as a “tremendous positive” for the city as a whole, saying he hoped it could spur a “reset” to reduce widespread acrimony over the issue. He also stressed that firefighters deserve a pay raise and looked forward to negotiating one with union leaders.

“They’re deserving of a pay raise that the city can afford and I do look forward to sitting down and talking with them about what would be an acceptable pay raise within the confines of the city’s financial capability,” Turner said. “We’ll do everything we can to move it forward.”

A release with the Mayor’s comments following the ruling, which came down while Council was in session, is here. Judge Garrison had sent the parties to mediation originally, saying she didn’t want to get involved if they could work it out among themselves. They did not, and so here we are. You can see a copy of her ruling here, which is an order granting summary judgment to the plaintiffs, the HPOU. The city is listed as the defendant and their motion was also granted, while the HPFFA’s motion was denied; someone who understands the law way better than I do will hopefully step in to explain how all that worked. Be that as it may, the firefighters will appeal, but that almost certainly means the city is off the hook for this fiscal year, possibly for the foreseeable future.

Firefighters get Prop B back pay

Good for them.

The city of Houston on Friday issued lump-sum paychecks to more than 3,900 firefighters, a move Mayor Sylvester Turner said reflects the implementation, retroactive to Jan. 1, of Proposition B, the measure granting firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and experience.

Marty Lancton, president of the Houston fire union, said that contrary to the mayor’s “Orwellian claims,” the paychecks did not fully equalize base and incentive pay between fire and police, as laid out in Proposition B. Lancton said the city “badly botched” implementation of the measure.

The back pay, worth $27.4 million, comes a week after Turner and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association ended court-ordered mediation without an agreement to phase in the raises over several years.

[…]

For now, the fire department’s biweekly payroll will increase from about $10.2 million to $12.3 million, Turner said. The city has dipped into its reserves to fund raises from Jan. 1 through June 30, which Turner said will cost $31 million. Lancton also has questioned the accuracy of that figure.

Both sides, meanwhile, are awaiting a state district judge’s ruling in a lawsuit brought by the Houston Police Officers’ Union, in which the police union and city have alleged Prop B violates the Texas constitution.

I don’t have anything to add to this, I’m just noting it for the record. I look forward to the day when I will be able to get all of this out of my brain, as I hope to do with Game 6 of Rockets-Warriors.

Here’s the Mayor’s budget

A lot of people won’t like it, but this is what happens when you heap a big expense on top of an already tight fiscal situation.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday proposed to close Houston’s $179 million budget gap for the upcoming fiscal year by tapping into the city’s reserves, eliminating more than 60 vacant positions and laying off more than 300 city employees.

Turner’s proposal would reduce the overall budget of city departments by about $36 million, a figure that includes layoffs of firefighters, fire cadets and municipal workers, all of whom have received pink slips.

The mayor’s budget also would draw $116 million from the city’s reserves, which Turner said the city can afford because it will end the 2019 fiscal year with a higher-than expected general fund balance. The next fiscal year begins July 1.

Laying out the final budget proposal of his first term, Turner framed the financial plan as conservative and said his administration “scrubbed every department” in search of places to trim costs. The budget also uses a conservative projection for the amount of new property tax revenue Houston may take in, Turner said.

[…]

Turner said a large chunk of the 2.2 percent increase in general fund spending is driven by the cost of Proposition B, the voter-approved charter amendment that grants firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority. The raises will cost $79 million during the next budget year, Turner said.

District E Councilman Dave Martin agreed with Turner’s fiscal assessment of the budget, contending that the city has faced a challenging situation with small revenue growth projections — about 2 percent in property taxes and 1 percent across all sources — amid large added costs such as Prop B.

“We’ve been working on this for nine months, accumulating a healthy fund balance, not filling slots that were available for employment,” said Martin, who chairs the council’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee.

Under Turner’s proposal, public safety — which includes the fire and police departments, the municipal courts and emergency operations — would make up about 58 percent of the general fund budget, at a cost of $1.5 billion. The fire department’s budget would increase to $558 million, a 4.5 percent boost over how much the city estimates it will spend on the department this year.

The fire department was allocated $503 million in the current budget. Total projected spending, however, has grown to about $534 million with the city covering Prop B raises retroactive to Jan. 1. Turner said the adjusted paychecks would go out Friday.

[…]

Controller Chris Brown, the city’s elected budget watchdog, said he does not feel confident that Turner has accurately projected Prop B’s cost because the mayor has yet to supply his office with financial data backing up the $79 million estimate. Brown also wants to generate his own independent figure, which he said he cannot do without certain incentive pay data.

Turner told reporters Tuesday that the city attorney, Ron Lewis, had determined the city’s interpretation of Prop B would withstand legal challenges.

Still, Brown said the city has little breathing room if a judge rules the firefighters are owed more. He noted that the budget would dip the city’s target fund balance within striking distance of the minimum level allowed by city policy. The city’s reserves must make up at least 7.5 percent of the city’s general fund budget, and the 2020 budget target would leave the balance at $171 million — 7.9 percent, $9 million above the threshold.

“What if a judge says, ‘You know what, we think that this is $100 million,’ and we need to pay immediately this additional money?” Brown said. “Where is that money coming from?”

I see on Twitter that some firefighters have highlighted the above quote from Controller Brown, while in this article Marty Lancton again complains that Mayor Turner isn’t implementing Prop B exactly the way he wants it to be implemented. Well, someone has to talk about the cost of Prop B. As for Brown, he’s just doing his job. And the possibility that the cost of Prop B could go up on a judge’s order is a good point and more than a little disturbing.

From here, the budget goes through Council, where they can propose amendments and do whatever they’re going to do with it. I’ll be very interested to see if any of the ones that voted against the layoffs have anything constructive to suggest for how to avoid, or at least reduce them. The budget vote is scheduled for June 5, so mark your calendar.

Mediation fails to achieve Prop B agreement

I have three things to say about this.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday said a court-appointed mediator has declared negotiations between the city and firefighters union over the implementation of Proposition B at impasse, potentially leaving the future of the measure in the hands of a state district judge.

The announcement ends what had appeared to be some progress toward resolving the months-long dispute over how to phase in raises to firefighters required by the pay parity measure voters approved last November. The charter amendment requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and experience.

[…]

State district Judge Tanya Garrison had ordered the city, firefighters and the Houston Police Officers Union into non-binding mediation three weeks ago. Garrison’s order came as part of a legal battle between the three sides over the constitutionality of Prop B; she declined to rule on that issue until the three parties reached a settlement on implementation or an impasse was declared by the third-party mediator.

The three groups had met at least three times since.

At issue is how to implement the raises. The fire union has said it would ask its members to consider a three-and-a-half-year phase-in as long as no firefighters are demoted or laid off. Turner had said the city cannot avoid layoffs unless Prop B raises are phased in over five years.

At a Friday morning press conference, however, Turner said the city had agreed to the fire union’s previous offer to phase in the raises over three and a half years, with no firefighters demoted or laid off.

Turner said the union then refused to accept that agreement, as well as another offer that would have given it hundreds of millions of dollars in a block grant-like arrangement that the union could use at its discretion.

He accused the union of repeatedly “moving the goal posts,” and said that agreeing to its full demands would devastate Houston’s finances and credit rating.

“The city cannot go beyond what we have proposed without bankrupting the city,” he said. “As long as I am mayor, we are not going to bankrupt this city. Everyone in the city would pay the price.”

Mediator David Matthiesen did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

In a statement, the fire union said it had agreed to take a four-year phase-in to its members if pay parity was implemented “effective immediately,” the city agreed to no layoffs and if the city disclosed “what each firefighter will earn in salary and incentive pay.”

HPFFA President Marty Lancton also said the city demanded in negotiations that Prop B be rescinded and declared unconstitutional, a request he adamantly opposed.

“Citizens’ rights to petition the local government must be protected,” he said.

1. You really have to admire Marty Lancton’s ability to keep the focus of this debate on one point, which is the pay raise that the voters agreed to give the firefighters. The fight here is not over whether or not to implement Prop B, it’s over how to do it. That’s what the mediation was about, that’s what the layoffs are about. The firefighters don’t like the way the city is implementing Prop B and have been complaining nonstop – and very successfully, at least from a short term political perspective – about it. Their grievance is that some firefighters will be laid off, and some others demoted, in order for the city to pay for Prop B. If the city had decided instead to lay off police officers, solid waste workers, and more municipal employees instead, there’s nothing in the firefighters’ rhetoric to suggest they’d have had a problem with that. Beyond the fact that it was clear from the beginning that the city could not afford Prop B, this right here is why I don’t have much sympathy for the firefighters.

2. That said, part of the litigation that was brought by the police officers’ union was a claim that Prop B is illegal and should be invalidated by the court. The argument here is that the pay parity law conflicts with state law about collective bargaining. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have no insight into that question. I had thought originally that the litigation over Prop B would follow the template of previous lawsuits over city referenda and be about ballot language. I was wrong about that, which is why I like to emphasize my not-a-lawyer status in these matters. Be that as it may, it seems like a big stretch to get an election overturned. I will be surprised if Judge Garrison (who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine) rules for the plaintiffs. But again, I Am Not A Lawyer, so place your bets at your own risk.

3. The last couple of paragraphs in this story are about how the people other than Sylvester Turner who are running for Mayor are also critical of his handling of Prop B implementation, without a single word being quoted about what these alternative Mayors think should be done instead. They don’t like what the Mayor is doing, they oppose what the Mayor is doing, but what would they be doing if they were Mayor? You cannot tell from reading this story. Perhaps the reporter chose not to include what they said about that, perhaps the story editor excised it for space, or perhaps none of them had anything useful to say on the topic. You can probably guess which one I think it is.

Layoffs and demotions

I’m so ready for this to be resolved.

Houston firefighters have started to receive layoff notices amid the implementation of Proposition B, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said in a statement Wednesday.

Houston City Council voted last week to layoff 220 firefighters to help offset firefighter raises mandated by the voter-approved proposition. The union said the firefighters received the notices via email Tuesday in what Lancton called a “slash-and-burn plan” from Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Lancton also expressed disappointment with Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña over the layoffs.

“We are deeply disappointed that Samuel Peña has become the first fire chief in Houston history to willingly execute mass layoffs and demotions of firefighters,” Lancton said in a statement. “From the city’s founding to the Great Depression, to two world wars and deep downturns of the energy industry, no fire chief had taken this course of action until today. Chief Peña now is alone among all Houston fire chiefs in that dubious distinction.”

Hundreds of HFD personnel also received demotion notices Wednesday, according to a letter provided to Chron.com. The firefighters union estimates upwards of 450 HFD personnel will be demoted.

This all follows a week in which CM Dwight Boykins made some loud claims about Council not being briefed about demotions, only to be smacked down by other Council members and HFD Chief Pena. Meanwhile, mediation is still underway, so the chance remains that all this can be reversed. (Or maybe not.) Pour yourself a drink and sit for awhile.

Also, too: This is the part where I point out that for all of the artillery being aimed at Mayor Turner, I’ve yet to see any suggestion for what alternatives exist to all this. Here are the constraints that must be satisfied:

– Prop B implemented, with the accompanying increase in expenditures by the city.
– No layoffs or demotions.
– The budget must be balanced, as mandated by city charter.
– The city cannot raise any new revenue beyond what is allowed by the revenue cap, which in the past five years has cost the city half a billion dollars via mandated tax cuts.

Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments. If you say that’s not your job, that’s the Mayor’s job, I’ll say sure, but we have a couple of Mayoral wannabees who are busy lobbing spitballs about this without offering any of their own ways forward. (Though, in fairness, one of them is busy engaging in silly Twitter fights, so at least he has his priorities straight.)

Council approves firefighter layoffs

And here we are.

City Council voted Wednesday to send 60-day layoff notices to 220 Houston firefighters to help pay for Proposition B, the voter-approved measure giving firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding rank and experience.

The 10-6 vote followed more than two hours of discussion. Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, meanwhile, continue to meet in mediation over how to implement Prop B.

Turner estimates the raises will cost the city roughly $80 million annually. He repeatedly has said that unless the union agrees to phase the raises in over five years, hundreds of firefighters and municipal employees will face layoffs.

The union has agreed to a phase-in over three and a half years, though Turner maintains that time frame would still necessitate some lay-offs.

Turner and the union will meet again Monday, but they face a looming deadline: The city must approve a balanced budget for the next fiscal year by July 1.

See here and here for the background. I’d have preferred a more decisive vote if I were Mayor Turner, but the die has been cast nonetheless. Maybe this will provide some incentive for a mediated agreement to be reached. If that happens soon, there would be time for Council to rescind this vote. Let’s say I’m not optimistic, but I won’t mind being wrong.

UPDATE: A later version of the story says who voted how:

For the layoffs: Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, David Martin, Greg Travis, Karla Cisneros, Robert Gallegos, Martha Castex-Tatum, David Robinson, Amanda Edwards and Jack Christie

Against: Dwight Boykins, Mike Laster, Mike Knox, Michael Kubosh, Steve Le and Brenda Stardig

I’m mildly surprised by Mike Laster, but otherwise this is about what I would have expected.

UPDATE: CM Travis’ office has emailed me to say he was not in attendance at Council yesterday due to a death in the family. As such, the vote was 9-6.

Off to mediation we go

Hope for the best, y’all.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mediation soon will begin in a lawsuit between the Houston police and firefighters unions over Proposition B, the voter-approved measure that gives firefighters equal pay to police officers.

In a Monday morning filing, State District Judge Tanya Garrison ordered the Houston Police Department, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and the city to meet Monday or Tuesday.

The parties last week agreed to turn to mediator Dave Matthiesen over Prop B, though representatives from the HPFFA said they would need more time to brief members.

In her filing, Garrison pushed back against HPFFA’s claim, saying it had plenty of time to prepare for mediation. She also ordered the parties to continue meeting until “a settlement is achieved” or “in the sole determination of Mr. Matthieson, they have reached an impasse.”

[…]

At a press conference Monday, some members of City Council joined with municipal employees to reiterate their support for mediation and a five-year phase-in.

Among the first positions cut will be librarians, dental assistants, custodians, a park ranger and an electrician, District I Councilman Robert Gallegos said.

“It’s totally unfair to them,” he said. “I don’t believe this is what Prop B is about and I’m sure that’s not what the voters intended. Firefighters do deserve a pay raise, but not at the expense of innocent municipal employees.”

See here for the background. Matthiesen is an attorney and Democratic supporter who is well known to all parties involved, so at least that was easy enough. I don’t envy him the task, but maybe everyone’s ready for this to be over already. As the story notes, Council will still proceed with voting on layoffs tomorrow, as this is part of the budget work. My guess is that this can be unwound if a suitable agreement is reached, but it’s also a bit of pressure on the firefighters, as this is where it officially gets real. I do wish the story had listed all the Council members at that press conference, if only so we can have a clearer idea of what the whip count looks like right now, but we’ll find out soon enough.

Mediation ordered in Prop B lawsuit

This ought to be interesting.

A state district judge on Thursday ordered the city, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and the Houston Police Officers’ Union to enter into mediation as they seek to resolve lingering differences over the implementation of Proposition B, the measure granting firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

Judge Tanya Garrison of the 157th Civil District Court ordered the mediation after hearing arguments in a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the pay parity amendment. During the hearing, Garrison said she would not issue a ruling on the case “any time soon,” concluding it would only set back ongoing negotiations to phase in firefighters’ Prop B-mandated raises.

“If I make a decision on this one way or the other … it will be the equivalent of throwing a bomb in the middle of the attempts to negotiate a resolution,” Garrison said.

The judge gave the parties until noon Monday to agree on a mediator. The court would appoint a mediator if they cannot settle on one.

The mediation is mandatory but not binding.

The mediator may suggest ways to resolve the dispute but cannot impose judgment, according to a list of rules attached to Garrison’s court order. If the parties do not voluntarily agree to a settlement, the issue returns to Garrison.

See here, here, and here for the background. As long as the mediator isn’t Tony Buzbee, I’m sure it will be fine. As a reminder, City Council will vote on the layoff plan on Wednesday (the agenda item was tagged last week), so perhaps that will provide some incentive to make things happen. In other news, the city provided financial data that the firefighters’ union had been demanding, though whether that will settle that argument or be the cause of further arguments remains to be seen.

What will Council do about Prop B layoffs?

We’re gonna find out.

Mayor Sylvester Turner told the Houston fire union Monday he would provide it with financial data leaders requested, a sign of progress at a critical point in negotiations between the mayor and union to phase in Proposition B raises for firefighters.

Officials from the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association have asked Turner to open the city’s books, allowing firefighters to verify that the mayor’s offer to phase in the pay raises over multiple years honors the terms of the charter amendment, which requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

Turner’s refusal to do so has been a key sticking point preventing a deal, union President Marty Lancton said.

The development comes two days before Houston city council is scheduled to consider a measure to lay off 220 Houston firefighters, which Turner has said is necessary to offset the cost of pay raises if Prop. B is not phased in over multiple years.

[…]

Fire Chief Sam Peña said he was “encouraged” by Monday’s talks, even if they did not produce immediate results.

“Anytime we’re sitting at the table and having a conversation is progress,” he said.

Peña said he was not sure whether Wednesday’s scheduled council vote would be delayed, but the department is moving ahead with implementation of Prop B anyway.

“The process needs to move forward, because the books do need to be balanced by the end of the fiscal year” in June, he said. Among the biggest changes Peña has sought is a switch from a four-shift work schedule for firefighters to three. Currently, firefighters work 20 24-hour shifts every 72 days, with occasional extra shifts for which Peña has said there is a high absentee rate.

The new, three-shift model would give firefighters regular days off. Peña said he was considering that switch even before Prop B’s passage as a way to save money that could be reinvested in fleet upgrades, among other things. Now, he said, it is about maintaining public safety while confronting HFD’s roughly $25 million share of Prop B’s annual costs.

The proposal headed to council on Wednesday shows that most of the staff reductions would come from firefighters, engineers and captains, though Pena said that absent any phase-in agreement, some employees could be demoted instead of having their positions absorbed through attrition.

See here for the background, and here for Mayor Turner’s letter. According to KUHF, the firefighters’ union tentatively agreed to the 3.5-year phase-in idea, though it sounds like there may still be sticking points as Mayor Turner is not saying that will eliminate layoffs – he’s been clear about needing a five-year plan for that – but merely reducing them. Like I said, we’ll see. In the meantime, 47 city employees who had nothing to do with foisting a large new budget item on us received their layoff notices late last week. I personally find that to be the most upsetting part of this whole saga. Just so we’re all clear, the stupid revenue cap prevents the city from raising taxes to pay for Prop B, and the city charter mandates a balanced budget. That’s why layoffs are inevitable barring a sufficiently slow phase-in. It was true (and communicated) before Prop B was ratified, and it remains true now.

Is there a city/firefighters agreement in the works?

They’re talking, for whatever it’s worth.

Officials from the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association said Friday they would seek union members’ approval of a 3.5-year phase-in of Proposition B if the city meets certain conditions.

After meeting with the union to discuss the terms, however, Mayor Sylvester Turner released a statement saying the provisions were “not consistent” with discussions held at the meeting.

Union president Marty Lancton said he had in fact laid out the union’s terms to the mayor, which include a guarantee that no firefighters will receive layoffs “before, during or after implementation of Proposition B.”

“We said it implicitly and explicitly,” Lancton said.

The mayor acknowledged the union delivered a copy of the letter, but accused Lancton of publicizing it before the meeting. Lancton also said this was untrue.

Aside from the no-layoff guarantee, union officials said any phase-in agreement would have to be ratified through a collective bargaining agreement.

Lancton also said Turner’s administration must provide the firefighters with “complete access to city financial and budget information” and implement “complete parity,” including base and incentive pay, with Houston police officers.

The two sides were scheduled to meet again next week before Houston City Council considers a measure at its Wednesday meeting that would authorize 220 firefighter layoffs.

See here for the latest update. I mean, maybe they’ll hammer something out and maybe they won’t. Deadlines have a way of focusing the mind, especially when layoffs are on the other side. I’ll reserve judgment about what may or may not be involved until there’s a resolution, but I will say this: Very early on in this process, Mayor Turner’s position was that Prop B had to be implemented all at once, there was no legal path to negotiating a phase-in. Everyone seems to have forgotten about that, which in and of itself doesn’t bother me too much since I like the idea of phasing it in regardless. But if this is true, then all it will take is someone filing a lawsuit to screw this all up. Let’s worry about that another day, as it’s not a thing until and unless a phase-in deal is ratified. There’s plenty of trouble here already without borrowing more.

First city layoff notices sent

Here we go.

The city has sent pink slips to 67 Houston Fire Department cadets, the first documented layoffs resulting from Mayor Sylvester Turner’s plan to implement Proposition B.

The trainees will remain employed through June 7, according to a copy of the layoff notices sent to cadets.

“The City of Houston has experienced a sizable budget shortfall due to the implementation of Prop B,” the layoff notices read, referring to the charter amendment passed by voters last November.

The measure requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and experience. Voters approved Prop B by an 18-point margin.

“I want to assure you that the elimination of your position was a business decision and does not reflect your work performance or the value we place on your service to the City,” the layoff notices, addressed from Fire Chief Sam Peña, also read.

Next week, 47 municipal employees will receive layoff notices, Turner said in a statement, while city council will vote April 17 on whether to lay off classified firefighters under the mayor’s plan to pay for Prop B-mandated raises.

[…]

His plan for implementing the raises prompted by Prop B, unveiled last month in talks with city council members, calls for the fire department to decrease its head count by 378 for the upcoming fiscal year, including layoffs.

Turner’s plan also calls for all city departments to cut their spending by 3 percent, which is expected to lead to the layoff of about 100 municipal workers.

In recent weeks, the mayor has said no layoffs would be needed if the raises required by Prop B could be phased in over four or five years.

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for the city’s statement. It will be interesting to see how Council handles this when it comes time to vote. Other than Dwight Boykins, it’s not clear to me who’s with the firefighters on this. This will certainly provide some clarity. As far as a phase-in period goes, if the city says “give us five years and we can avoid layoffs”, while the firefighters say “no, but we can go for three years”, I confess I don’t quite understand why some kind of deal can’t be reached. Maybe that’s just me. For what it’s worth, nothing has to be set in stone till Council votes on the budget. There is still time for an agreement to be reached. How likely that is, I have no idea. But at least theoretically, it could happen.

The further effects of Prop B

I mean, what did you expect?

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

How would you implement Prop B?

Here, from last week, is Mayor Turner’s official announcement about layoffs, following a failure to come to an agreement with the firefighters’ union about a time frame to fully implement Prop B. Here’s the Chron story about the firefighters protesting the layoffs, which we knew were coming – indeed, we’d known since last year, as that was one of the main points Mayor Turner made during the Prop B campaign. The Chron editorial board agrees with Turner that given the limited options available, layoffs are the only reasonable choice.

Now, to be sure, there is the garbage fee proposal, which Council will vote on this week. It would, at least in theory, pay for the increased costs that Prop B imposes, though there are objections. I’ve laid some of them out – a trash fee should be used for solid waste collection, the potential for litigation is non-trivial – and I’ll add another one here: If a garbage fee is the mechanism for funding Prop B, that necessarily means that only some Houstonians are contributing to that. Anyone who doesn’t live in a house that has city of Houston solid waste service would not be subject to this fee. (At least, I assume so – it’s not clear to me how this fee will be assessed.) Maybe you think that’s a big deal and maybe you don’t, but I guarantee someone will complain about it.

So the question remains, how would you implement Prop B? We all agree Prop B will cost some money to implement. The firefighters have never put a dollar figure on it themselves – they have made claims that the fire department brings in revenues that could be spent on the fire department instead of other things, which doesn’t actually solve anything but just recapitulates the argument that the city should spend more on firefighters. Raising the property tax rate is out, as it would violate the stupid revenue cap. Indeed, as we know, the city has had to cut the tax rate multiple times in recent years, costing itself a lot of revenue in the process. The basic options are a flawed fee that will charge some households up to $300 a year and others nothing, and layoffs. And if you’re going to do layoffs, the ones that make the most sense are the firefighters themselves, as the vast majority of calls to HFD are for emergency medical services and not fires – EMTs are cheaper to hire, don’t require expensive fire trucks to get to where they’re going, and aren’t in scope of Prop B. And that, barring any late-breaking agreement to implement Prop B more slowly, is what we are going to get.

So then, what if anything would you do differently? I’m open to suggestion.

UPDATE: Here’s City Controller Chris Brown saying the cost of Prop B is unsustainable outside an agreement to phase it in over five years, which is what the city has been pushing for.

Firefighter layoffs

Hoo boy.

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to lay off up to 400 firefighters as he prepares to award pay raises required by Proposition B, the voter-approved charter amendment that grants firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank, according to five Houston City Council members who were briefed on the plan Thursday.

The apparent move to fully implement the pay parity measure comes after talks between the city and fire union about phasing in the raises over five or more years became strained last week. Meanwhile, city officials are preparing council members for the difficult task of closing a $197 million deficit in the annual budget that must be adopted for the upcoming July 1 fiscal year. About $80 million of that budget gap comes from the firefighters’ raises, council members were told.

In addition to the firefighter layoffs, Turner will seek to close the deficit by asking all city departments to cut their budgets by at least 3 percent, a move that is likely to require layoffs of, perhaps, 100 municipal workers, the council members said. Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said she was told no police officers will be laid off.

On May 9, Turner’s administration plans to issue back pay to firefighters retroactive to Jan. 1, which will total about $30 million, multiple council members said.

“So, basically, on May 9 you want to be hanging out near a firefighter because he’s going to be buying,” said Councilman Greg Travis. “He’s going to have a lot of money on that day.”

The city plans to mail layoff notices to firefighters within weeks, Travis said. Among the layoffs are 68 fire cadets who Turner has declined to promote amid a citywide hiring freeze than has spanned more than five months. The mayor nonetheless promoted more than 60 police cadets Monday.

The fire cadets filed grievances against Turner Thursday alleging that the mayor was discriminating and retaliating against them.

[…]

Turner, who repeatedly has warned of potential layoffs, told reporters his hands were tied because the charter amendment did not come with a funding mechanism. He also said the fire union rejected a city proposal to phase in pay raises. That offer did not appear to fully implement the charter amendment over the city’s proposed five-year window, falling short of increases in incentive pay that the finance department projects would be necessary to reach full parity.

“People want to put the administration in a box,” Turner said. “If you don’t implement Prop. B, people criticize you for not implementing Proposition B. When we move to implement Prop. B, people say, ‘We don’t want the layoffs.’ Well, you can’t have it both ways.”

During negotiations, the firefighters proposed to phase in Prop. B raises over three years, retroactive to July 1, 2018. The raises then would be distributed based on firefighters’ length of service, with all members reaching full parity by July 1, 2020.

No one can say they didn’t see this coming. One of the main arguments against Prop B was the cost, which would inevitably lead to layoffs because the vast majority of the city’s expenditures are personnel costs. It seems a little crazy that there wasn’t a way to agree to a phase in to avoid any drastic actions, but here we are. Note that the city has very limited capacity to raise revenues thanks to the stupid and harmful revenue cap, and the city is not allowed to run a deficit. That severely restricts options, and that’s the place we are in now. We’ve been through this before, back in 2010 when then-Mayor Parker faced a huge deficit caused by the downturn in the economy. She wound up laying off hundred of municipal employees. Police and firefighters were exempted from that, but this time it’s the firefighter pay parity referendum that is driving a big part of the deficit. Where should the cuts come from this time? You tell me.

One uncertainty appeared to stem from differences in educational requirements between the departments. For example, police officers must have a master’s degree to be promoted to assistant police chief, a stipulation that does not exist for assistant fire chiefs and fire marshals. Some firefighters may receive reduced raises due to the differing requirements, multiple council members said, explaining why the latest cost estimate of $80 million falls more than $30 million below Turner’s previous estimate.

There is speculation this will lead to a lawsuit. I’ve expected that from the beginning. And I fully expect it will still be litigated the next time the Mayor is on the ballot in 2023.

Former drivers sue Uber and Lyft over leaving Austin

This ought to be interesting.

Uber

A pair of former drivers for Uber and Lyft filed dual class action lawsuits Thursday against the ride-hailing companies over their abrupt exit last month from the Austin market.

The lawsuits, filed in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, claim that Uber and Lyft violated the federal Worker Adjustment, Retraining and Notification Act when they pulled out of Austin in May because they failed to properly notify their employees. Uber and Lyft have long maintained that their drivers are independent contractors and not employees.

[…]

Lyft

Todd Johnston, the driver behind the suit against Uber, drove for the company since May 2015 while David Thornton, the driver on the Lyft suit, drove for Lyft since October 2015. According to the suits, Johnson and Thornton, along with other Austin ride-hailing drivers, “lost their jobs” after the companies left Austin.

“Lost in the political theater surrounding the Uber and Lyft versus Austin City Council battle was the real-world effect on the thousands of Austinites who suddenly lost their incomes when Uber and Lyft abandoned Austin,” said Michael Slack, an attorney for Johnston and Thornton.

The federal notification act cited in the suits requires employers to notify their employees before any mass layoffs or the closure of a “facility” or “operating unit.”

I Am Not A Lawyer, so I have no idea if this suit has any merit or not. We do know, as the story says, that Uber and Lyft are very adamant about the whole worker-classification thing, so you can be sure that will be a key to their argument against the plaintiffs. How successful they are, and how successful the plaintiffs are at getting terms like “facility” to be interpreted in their favor, will determine how far this gets. Any actual attorneys want to comment on this?

Turner announces his budget

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Utilizing a shared sacrifice approach, Mayor Sylvester Turner today unveiled a proposed Fiscal Year 2017 General Fund budget that eliminates a projected $160 million shortfall that was the result of cost increases, voter imposed revenue limitations, a broken appraisal system and the economic downturn. The budget totals $2.3 billion, which is about $82 million less in spending than the current FY2016 appropriation. The decrease was accomplished while still meeting $60 million of contractual and mandated cost increases the City is forced to cover in FY2017. The mayor is unveiling his preliminary budget plan more than a month ahead of the normal schedule and has requested accelerated City Council approval in an effort to send a positive message regarding City budget management.

“This was the largest fiscal challenge the City has faced since before the Great Recession,” said Mayor Turner. “By bringing all parties to the table to engage in shared sacrifice, we have closed the budget gap and started addressing the long-standing structural imbalance between available revenues and spending. Each City department, the employee unions, the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones, City Council and various other parties have worked together to identify cost savings and efficiencies while preserving a healthy fund balance, minimizing employee layoffs and maintaining the City services our residents rely on and deserve.”

Due to an arrangement negotiated by the mayor, the City’s tax increment reinvestment zones will send $19.6 million back to the City to help cover increased operating costs citywide. The rest of the budget gap was closed utilizing a combination of savings from debt restructuring, spending reductions, revenue from anticipated land sales and a small contribution from the City’s fund balance. Even with this fund balance contribution, the City’s savings account will remain well above the threshold necessary to satisfy the credit rating agencies.

The budget includes the elimination of 54 vacant positions and 30 to 40 layoffs, most of which the mayor hopes to accomplish through attrition. There are no significant reductions to park and library operations, which have been hit hard in the past and there will be no layoffs of police officers or fire fighters. There is funding included for an additional police cadet class, for a total of five classes and the mayor continues to look for ways to streamline operations to get more officers back on the street.

The budget was balanced using both recurring and non-recurring initiatives. If non-recurring items had been taken off the table, there would have been drastic cuts in City services and another 1,235 City employees would have lost their jobs.

The recurring initiatives mark the start of institutionalizing a new way of running City government. The elimination of redundancies and increased efficiency in operations has generated $36.2 million in recurring annual savings. In addition, the TIRZs will continue to contribute at least $19.6 million in subsequent years. Yet to come is a new approach for the City’s pension liabilities. Productive discussions are underway with stakeholders and I am committed to having an agreement ready to take to the legislature by the end of this year.

“I strongly urge City Council to resist the urge to tinker with this budget,” said Turner. “Even one small change will upset the delicate balance we’ve achieved as a result of shared sacrifice and put the City at risk for a credit rating downgrade. This plan prepares us for the additional fiscal challenges anticipated in FY18 while also improving public safety, increasing employment opportunities and meeting the critical needs of the less fortunate in our city.”

City Council is scheduled to vote on the budget May 25, 2016, nearly a month ahead of last year. The new fiscal year begins July 1, 2016.

Details are here, and the Chron story on the budget is here. I confess, I’ve only scanned the details so far – sorry, but it was a long week, and it’s been a busy weekend. I am sure there will be plenty of opportunity to discuss the details between now and May 25. Have a look for yourself and feel free to tell us what you think.

More cuts, fewer teachers

We knew this was what had happened, and now we have the numbers.

New data from the Texas Education Agency illustrate what school officials have decried for months: Their staffs are stretched thin following the unprecedented state budget cuts that took effect this school year.

Statewide, districts eliminated roughly 25,000 positions, including more than 10,700 teaching jobs. Overall, districts cut their workforce by 4 percent – through attrition and, in some cases, layoffs – since last school year.

“I’m hoping the Legislature will see there’s hard data showing that, yes, districts are making some good decisions in terms of efficiencies,” said Bob Sanborn, president of Children at Risk, a Houston-based nonprofit that analyzed the state figures. “But the Legislature should be very worried that in the haste to be more efficient we are cutting our future out from under us.”

Remember that the cuts from the 2011 budget are somewhat backloaded for the second year of the biennium, so there’s more of this to come. This is why HISD is grappling with its budget again, and is considering a property tax rate hike as one option to close another multi-million dollar shortfall. Don’t like that idea, or the other things they’re considering? Blame Rick Perry and the Legislature for putting them in that position. And yes, it could have been so much worse.

Texas lawmakers, agreeing with Gov. Rick Perry’s no-tax-hike pledge to balance the budget, cut per-student funding to public education by $5.4 billion over the biennium, which includes the current school year and next year.

“The cuts weren’t as bad as they could have been,” said Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, who chairs the House Education Committee.

One House proposal would have reduced school funding by $10 billion, costing an estimated 100,000 jobs.

The budget the House passed would have $7.8 billion from public education. Every House Republican voted for that budget. The economic news in Texas is getting better, but we’re going to keep getting more of the same from the Lege for as long as we have the same Lege.

Job growth in 2012

Depending on how you look at it, there’s good news, or fair-to-middling news for the Texas job market next year.

Source: Paul Krugman (click for originating post)

Texas job growth in 2012 will reach about 2 percent for the third consecutive year, Federal Reserve Senior Economist Keith Phillips said Tuesday.

Two percent equates to a net increase of 200,000 jobs statewide, Phillips said during a luncheon held at the San Antonio branch office of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and attended by about 60 invited South Texas business leaders.

Texas annual job growth was 2.1 percent in both 2010 and 2011, Phillips said, fueled by expansions in the energy, high-tech and export sectors.

The growth rates for those industries will slow in 2012, Phillips said, but construction in apartments, offices and houses will offset that to keep job growth steady in Texas.

The good news is that there is job growth predicted, and it’s above the growth rate predicted for the nation as a whole. The not so good news is that it’s not any better than it’s been the last two years, which weren’t exactly boffo, and in fact may be a tad below those years. The unknown is how the job growth will compare to the growth in the population of employment-age people. It’s that comparison that will determine Texas’ unemployment rate.

This doesn’t fill me with confidence:

A year ago, Phillips had forecast a 2.7 percent Texas job growth rate. Jobs in the private sector increased at close to that rate. The surprise in 2011 was the loss of local and state government jobs, especially teacher positions, he said.

Fifteen percent of Texas jobs are tied to local and state governments. Budget cuts last year dropped the number of those jobs by 4.4 percent, Phillips said.

“I don’t expect more local and state job cuts in 2012,” he said.

Public sector job losses last year were a surprise? Really? Maybe at this time last year, before the Lege got to work, you could convince yourself that they wouldn’t really take a chainsaw to public education like they did, but the handwriting was certainly on the wall. Not expecting more cuts in 2012 seems like a bad bet to me, because funding reductions to school districts were backloaded a bit. I will not be at all surprised if there are more teacher layoffs this year. I agree that the bulk of the job losses in public education have already occurred, but I do expect there to be more this year. I’ll be glad to be wrong about that.

How’s that Texas miracle going?

Not so good.

The Texas unemployment rate reached 8.5 percent in August, its highest rate since June of 1987.

That’s an increase from 8.4 percent in July.

Those numbers come from the U.S. Department of Labor. The numbers were confirmed by the Texas Workforce Commission, which says the state lost 1,300 jobs in August. Texas gained 8,100 private-sector jobs, but those jobs were wiped out by job losses in the public sector.

For the year, Texas has added 272,000 jobs in the private sector but lost 19,000 government jobs. In August alone, the state lost 11,500 jobs in local government, for a net loss of 9,400 government jobs.

The Texas unemployment rate ranks 27th, tied with Colorado.

Gov. Rick Perry is trying to make the Texas jobs record the centerpiece of his campaign.

Indeed. Maybe cutting billions of dollars from the budget and laying off thousands of government workers wasn’t the best way to add jobs and grow the economy. I’m just saying. Apparently, the Perry response to this is to blame the President for the loss of local and state government jobs. Funny, I thought Republicans used to call that sort of thing “shrinking government”, and liked taking credit for it. One more thing to add to the list of things they used to support but now oppose, I guess.

Back to school

Time to do more with less, kids. Just don’t expect to be cut any slack on those standardized tests.

When Texas students return to public schools this week, some will see a slight uptick in class sizes and fewer teachers, while many will have to walk or get rides because bus service was cut to save money.

Last spring, parents and educators feared that state budget cuts would be so drastic they would lead to giant classes and 100,000 jobless educators. However, lawmakers scaled back the reductions amid protests, and recently released federal economic-stimulus funding also helped plug holes this year.

That’s one way of putting it, I guess, and it does at least acknowledge that public opinion was strongly against the massive cuts that were initially proposed by the State House, and which every single Republican in the State House voted for. I don’t believe the Senate was ever going to go along with that, so it’s not clear to me how much pressure the protests actually applied. I don’t want to downplay the effort because I think it was important and necessary, but as I said at the time if it’s not followed by electoral action against the many legislators who paid it no heed, then it was more noise than anything else.

Houston-area school officials said they have worked to make sure students won’t be severely hurt by the $4 billion statewide cut to public education over the next two years.

Yet some districts and schools are harder hit than others based on the state’s funding system, changes in student enrollment and the ways administrators chose to balance the books.

[…]

Few districts other than HISD have tracked individual employees since they initially received pink slips, making it impossible to determine how many teachers and other school workers are unemployed. Some who lost jobs have been absorbed into positions vacated through resignations and retirements.

Yet most local districts report that they will have fewer teachers and other staff this year. Katy ISD, which has 52 schools, will have one fewer teacher per campus on average, while the schools in Klein ISD will have one or two fewer teachers each.

Pasadena ISD laid off about 180 teachers in the spring, but at least 62 have been rehired.

We know that HISD has hired back some teachers, as has Austin ISD. The reason for this is that most school districts had to finalize their own budgets before the Lege finished its budget, so they mostly prepared for the worst and got lucky. It must be noted that the Lege backloaded its cuts to public education, meaning that there will be less money for the 2012-2013 school year than there was for this one, so some of those folks that got hired back will be in peril again. And the long term picture remains grim.

Alamo Heights ISD Superintendent Kevin Brown says recent budget cuts forced him to increase some high school classes by three students each. That means teachers with full course loads will be responsible for 18 more teenagers a day, and Brown knows an increasing number of them will come from disadvantaged homes.

“I think we are setting ourselves up as a state for a very challenging future,” said Brown, who has spent the summer adjusting his district’s budget because of state cuts. “It’s very frustrating.”

In the past decade, Texas’ population soared by 4 million residents and its public schools became poorer and more Hispanic. Since 2000, enrollment has grown by 874,000 to 4.9 million school children, but the number of students from low-income families has increased by more than 913,000. Studies indicate that children from low-income families cost more to educate.

And that’s from one of the wealthier districts in the state. Texas’ public school students are increasingly from low-income families, yet we’re cutting teachers and support staff, reducing college opportunities, eliminating bus service, and charging students for extracurriculars, athletics, and a whole host of other things. We’re doing everything in our power, in other words, to ensure they have a low-income future. Have a great year, kids.

Austin ISD rehiring some teachers

A little bit of good news.

The Austin school board voted Monday to abandon plans to expand class sizes to save money, reverting to the ideal student-teacher ratio of 22-to-1 for classes in kindergarten through the fourth grade and prompting a need to hire dozens of teachers.

The move, which will cost the district $2.5 million, comes about seven months after trustees approved raising the staffing formula guidelines to 24-to-1 as part of an effort to cut expenses.

Anticipating drastic state cuts and possible changes to state rules on the 22-1 classroom cap, district administrators had recommended the larger classes for the 2011-12 school year, saying they would save the district $9.8 million.

Austin district officials cut about 485 campus positions under the change in staffing formulas.

The state Legislature, however, did not approve raising the class-size cap, though state officials did make it easier for districts to get class-size waivers if needed.

The staffing formula changes cleared the way for the Austin district to cut 1,153 positions overall.

As of late last week, 273 laid-off teachers had been rehired, and 125 vacant teaching positions remained, said Michael Houser, the district’s chief human resources officer.

Monday’s vote means Austin will hire an additional 35 teachers, Houser said. He added that those hires would happen as-needed once the school year starts.

A lot of school districts, including HISD, made decisions based on the initial House budget, which would have cut public education by about twice as much as the final bill. Many of them have scaled back their cuts, but they were still left with a lot of them, and they will likely need to make more for the 2012-13 academic year, as some of the changes in the funding formula were backloaded. The Trib reminds us of the big picture.

Though legislators encouraged administrators to keep as much money as possible in classrooms, the majority of public education dollars are spent on personnel — meaning job cuts can’t be avoided. During the legislative session, The Associated Press reported that up to 100,000 of the state’s 330,000 teachers might lose their positions. Officials at the Texas State Teachers Association estimate that about 12,000 teachers have lost their jobs so far, and they warn more teachers could be laid off in the second year of budget cuts. The Austin Independent School District has already given pink slips to nearly 500 employees.

Not all districts have been forced to cut staff. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD spokeswoman Kelli Durham says her district has managed to maintain current teaching positions through retirement and attrition, and by opting to leave more than 400 positions vacant. Since the Legislature went into overtime last session, some districts (like this one in Katy) have figured their cuts will not be as severe as anticipated, and they are re-hiring some laid off teachers.

Cy-Fair may have avoided layoffs, but many of those retirements still represent people who aren’t working but could be, and those vacant positions are a reminder that the job market for teachers is brutal. The fact that the situation isn’t as bad as the apocalyptic scenario that was envisioned when the House budget got passed – and remember, every single Republican in the House voted for that budget and its $8 billion in cuts to public education – doesn’t mean that it isn’t bad.

Day One at the SBOE

Here’s your TFN Insider coverage of today’s SBOE science hearings. In Part I of the hearings, we find that the SBOE may not be such a major factor in school curriculum any more:

10:20  – Board members are quizzing the commissioner about how the new rules governing the purchase of instructional materials — changes codified in Senate Bill 6, passed during the legislative session and signed by the governor earlier this week — will play out in school districts. Commissioner Scott rightly notes that the law represents a sea-change in the way the schools purchase materials.Note: TFN is putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive analysis of this new law and its likely effects on the state board’s role in vetting and approving classroom materials. We plan to publish that analysis in the coming weeks. TFN communications director Dan Quinn previewed our conclusions in a story in today’s USA Today: “It has the great potential to diminish the influence of the State Board of Education.”

And we find that maybe, just maybe, the winds have shifted a bit:

11:20 – Interesting news out of the SBOE Committee on Instruction meeting earlier this morning. That five-member committee has long been dominated by far-right members, but there are signs that a change is coming. The committee’s first order of business today was to elect a new chair, after Barbara Cargill announced she was stepping down. In a move that seemed to surprise Cargill, George Clayton, R-Dallas, nominated new board member Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, as chair. Clayton and Farney, though conservative, have been ostracized by Cargill and the far-right faction. Cargill immediately nominated fellow far-right conservative Terri Leo, R-Spring, and the vote was deadlocked at two votes for each candidate. Democratic board member Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, is absent from today’s meetings, so the committee moved to postpone the election of chair until the September meeting when Berlanga will be present. Since there is no love lost between Berlanga and the far-right bloc, it seems likely that she will vote for Farney at the September meeting. Could this be a coup, signaling a return to common sense on this critical committee?

We can only hope. In Part II we find that all those annoying pro-science testifiers are making Ken Mercer and David Bradley cry, and in Part I of the debate, we find there’s nothing to be alarmed about just yet. Which counts as good news with the SBOE. Here’s Steven Schafersman‘s coverage; Josh Rosenau has weighed in on Twitter but not yet on his blog. All the Twitter action is on the #SBOE hashtag if you’re into that sort of thing.

Finally, an object lesson in not being able to do more with less:

With one-third fewer people, the Texas Education Agency just can’t do everything it used to do.

State Board of Education members were were told on multiple occasions this morning that a lack of time and staffers had prevented the agency from doing some of the prep work that it would have done previously, such as creating a briefing book on new legislation.

Citing similar constraints, agency staffers said they had yet to produce rules for the implementation of Senate Bill 6, which fundamentally changes how school districts can use state dollars to buy instructional materials and technology. It was passed during the special session last month.

School districts, for example, are waiting to learn how much they will get under the new system to cover the cost of textbooks, hardware, software and other expenses associated with disseminating lessons to students.

Sometimes, when you fire a bunch of people, stuff just doesn’t get done. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

UPDATE: So far, so good. On to tomorrow.

UPDATE: The Trib has more.

Does Perry get any credit?

What credit, if any, should Rick Perry get for Texas’ relatively good economic condition? This Statesman story aims to find out.

As Gov. Rick Perry’s flirtation with running for president puts the Texas economy under a microscope, there’s no question jobs would be Perry’s calling card in a national campaign focused on the economy. The state’s longest-serving governor can say people are voting with their feet. But what do people like Fishbein find once they are here? And how much credit can Perry take for the state’s economy?

Most people know of Texas’ reputation for creating jobs — the cornerstone of Perry’s pitch that limited government, less regulation and low taxes are the tonic for what ails the nation. Yet almost half of the state’s job growth the past two years was led by education, health care and government, the sectors of the economy that will now take a hit as federal stimulus money runs out and the Legislature’s 8 percent cut in state spending translates into thousands of layoffs among state workers and teachers in the coming weeks.

Also, Texas is tied with Mississippi as the nation’s leaders in minimum wage jobs. And conservatives argue that Texas can do more to lower its tax burden on businesses, which is higher than the national average and states such as California and Massachusetts that have a personal income tax.

That said, experts agree that Texas, with its 10 million-plus workforce, is adding more jobs than other states. They don’t always agree on the fairest way to report Texas’ proportion of the nation’s job growth since the recession ended officially in June 2009. The number ranges from a third to nearly half, a significant portion to be sure. And in raw numbers, Texas has no peer as it leads the nation through a slow recovery.

The state’s economy added about 282,300 jobs from June 2009 through April, according to an analyis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. The state also lost 45,500 jobs during that period.

Job gains and losses, however, did not fall equally across the Texas economy the past two years. Construction, manufacturing and information sectors lost jobs overall. Education and health services led in job creation (32 percent of all jobs added), followed by professional and business services (23 percent), petroleum (18 percent) and government (12 percent). Other industry sectors, ranging from utilities to hospitality, had smaller job gains.

Pia Orrenius, a Dallas Fed economist, explained Texas’ resiliency this way:

“The state has some natural advantages, including energy, Gulf ports and proximity to Mexico, and a young and rapidly growing population,” she said. “But the state also has business-friendly policies. The state attracts businesses due to its low cost of doing business and attracts people due to its relatively low tax burden and low cost of living.”

Which, as the story notes, is how it was before Perry took office, and how it will undoubtedly continue to be after he leaves. You want to give Perry credit for that, fine, but then he also deserves the “credit” for all of the austerity-induced job losses and all future educational setbacks resulting from cuts to public schools. That story is yet to be written, but the parts of it that begin to show up in the next few months while Perry may or may not be mounting a Presidential campaign deserve a full airing.

Austin braces for job losses

Ready or not, here they come.

The Texas Education Agency said Tuesday that it is laying off 178 employees this week. Those are among the first of thousands of state government layoffs expected in the coming weeks.

The TEA decision has been months in the making, as the agency seeks to reduce its staff by 32 percent to cope with budget cuts ordered by the Texas Legislature, an agency spokeswoman said.

This week’s layoffs come on the heels of 91 layoffs by the agency in February, with another 74 people retiring, quitting or transferring this year.

At the start of the legislative session in January, lawmakers proposed a 2012-13 budget that a Legislative Budget Board analysis said would cut 9,600 positions statewide in an attempt to balance a budget that spends 8 percent less than the current one. By the time the Legislature passed a budget in late May, the board estimated that 5,700 state government jobs would be lost, a 2.4 percent reduction from 2011 to 2013.

[…]

Two weeks ago, the Texas Water Development Board, a state agency that does long-term water planning, laid off 39 workers and eliminated an additional 28 jobs, said spokeswoman Merry Klonower. Almost all of the cuts are being made to the staff in Austin.

The board, which employs more than 300 people, is facing $16.8 million in cuts, a 30 percent reduction in its budget.

The workers received one month of severance pay.

In late June, the 3,000-employee Texas Parks and Wildlife Department announced more than 100 layoffs as the agency faces a 21 percent budget cut. About half of the layoffs are being done in Austin. The employees also are receiving 45 days of severance pay.

All this comes on the heels of some non-robust job numbers in the year ending in May. The report for the current quarter ought to be interesting. So I’m just curious about something: If a poor jobs report were to be added to the poor poll numbers in Iowa and Texas, and someone were to eventually notice that one of the organizers of his upcoming Prayerapalooza hates the Statue of Liberty (which, let’s be honest, would already have the right-wing rage machine in full nuclear meltdown by now if there were any Democrats involved), do you think that maybe the national media might start to think that perhaps Rick Perry isn’t all that and a bag of chips?

You may say to yourself “Well, how did I get here?”

What’s missing from this story?

The city of Houston’s budget crisis that has resulted in 747 employees getting pink slips last month and likely will close pools and community centers did not happen overnight.

It has been brewing for the better part of a decade, the result of, among other things, spending more while taxing less, borrowing to pay bills, raiding its piggy bank and channeling ever more payroll dollars into funds for retirees. A public hearing on the coming year’s budget is scheduled for June 14.

Mayor Annise Parker inherited a city that she said last year had been spending more than it had taken in “for years.” Parker, who served as controller or councilwoman since the 1990s, has refused to second-guess her predecessor, Bill White.

However, she has distanced herself by highlighting that this year’s budget would not use pension obligation bonds to meet the city’s commitment to retirees — a signature feature of White’s budgets. The city borrowed $245 million to pay pension benefits during the White years. The money spent, the city now has to pay $34 million in principal and interest in the coming fiscal year.

What’s missing, at least until the very end, is any mention of the drop in revenue collected due to the downturn in the economy. Obviously, there’s nothing the city can do to change this, and obviously it is constrained by its past decisions as it tries to deal with it. But this is a huge factor, and the story contains many paragraphs about spending before it finally acknowledges that the loss of revenue is a pretty big deal, too.

All these squeezes occur as the city forecasts a drop in its income. Her fiscal 2012 budget projects $8 million less in property tax collections than this fiscal year, but it is a $50 million drop from fiscal 2010.

So if property tax collections had just stayed flat over the past two years, there would be at least $50 million more to spend in the 2012 budget, and there would have been $42 million more in last year’s. That doesn’t include a drop in sales tax revenues, which only started to recover last year at the state level. The city would still be in a deficit situation and would still need to make cuts, but that’s a pretty significant fraction of the total shortfall. Of course, the reason the city had been spending more in previous years is partly because it had more money to spend: Tax collections had been growing, not staying flat. With that growth in tax collections came a series of cuts in the tax rate, which the story says amounts to about $20 million per year. Undoing those rate cuts is of course off the table because that’s the way the world works these days, but add that $20 million to the drop in revenue due to the economy and you have more than half of the 2012 shortfall. We’d be having a very different budget conversation under those conditions.

The city clearly does have to deal with spending, with pension issues being front and center as the growth in the city’s pension obligations has been a big driver of the deficit as well. My point is simply that we need to understand all of the factors involved in order to properly respond to the situation we’re in. Some of the problem we’re facing is transient, and we need to be careful about using disruptive solutions for it. Nancy Sims and Houston Politics have more.

The city’s 2012 budget

Cuts, deferred payments, and more cuts.

Mayor Annise Parker, facing what she described as the toughest fiscal environment in more than 20 years, on Thursday proposed a $1.8 billion budget that calls for laying off 747 employees, closing pools and community centers and slashing other programs.

The budget eliminates city-funded sports leagues, reduces library hours and pulls the city out of three health clinics that will be turned over to nonprofit agencies already involved in running them. Eight pools and seven community centers would close this summer.

“We are clearly in the middle of the toughest times that the city has experienced since the downturn in the 1980s,” Parker said at a midday news conference. “Houston continues to be in better shape financially than most of the other big cities in America, and our local economy remains stronger and resilient. It doesn’t mean we can get through this unscathed.”

The proposal does not include any tax increases to bridge what had been a $75 million budget gap for the coming fiscal year. The budget requires City Council approval.

Parker’s plan calls for spending $100 million less in the year beginning July 1 than in the current fiscal year. The city faces a budget squeeze even after a year spent consolidating departments, raising fees and trimming payroll.

In addition to the agreement with the firefighters, the Mayor also reached an agreement with the police union to defer payments to their pension fund as a piece of the puzzle for this budget. Much like the state of Texas, the city is betting that things will improve enough to pay for these put-off payments and avoid the need for any tax increases that it has gone so far out of its way to not do. The city, by virtue of deferring less and not having a built-in deficit maker in its budget, is in a better position to win that bet, but if they don’t I don’t want to hear anyone squealing about taxes. At some point, you’ve got to pay for your obligations, including those whose costs are beyond your control. Hair Balls has more.

Firefighters avoid layoffs

The city and the firefighters’ union reach an agreement on the deadline for sending layoff notices to cut HFD’s budget by $17.7 million but not require any layoffs.

The agreement’s components include program cuts and fees for services that are currently free such as plan checks for new construction. But the largest chunk of the savings comes from deferring rather than cutting spending.

Under the agreement, firefighters who leave the department will no longer get their accrued time off paid in a lump sum but instead spread over four years. In addition, although the mayor’s team guaranteed no firefighter layoffs for fiscal year 2012, the union did not succeed in getting that guarantee extended to 2013.

Nor did it solve the thorniest of issues between the city and the union. The city wants to smooth out vacation scheduling by restricting how many firefighters can take time off during summer and holiday months, when the city pays millions of dollars in overtime to cover the shifts while so many employees are out. The two sides agreed to appoint a joint labor-management committee to work on the issue.

“It’s not a permanent solution, but it is something that will absolutely prevent the immediate layoff of firefighters,” [Mayor Annise] Parker said.

[Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Jeff] Caynon said, “We have accomplished agreement in principle that prevents firefighters from layoffs and preserves our ability to provide service at the level we have today.”

HFD had previously laid off some civilian staff; this agreement was about the firefighters themselves. The agreement still needs to be ratified by Council.

More city layoffs

How high will it get?

More than 600 city employees have received layoff notices this month as the city sheds payroll in a budget crisis.

The count is mounting daily as city leaders orchestrate a department-by-department approach to telling their employees that they no longer will have jobs come July 1.

Wednesday afternoon, back when the count was 300, Mayor Annise Parker said, “There will be hundreds more.” That same day, 127 civilian employees of the police department were told they were being laid off. The total so far is 634.

The fire department laid off some civilian staff as well. Even with good sales tax news from the state, we’re still short a ton of revenue for next year. The bloodletting has only just begun.

City layoffs begin

With more to follow later.

Expressing faith that the “brighter tomorrow we wait for is just around the corner,” the Parker administration on Thursday began pink-slipping municipal workers in hope of easing an expected $80 million budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year.

A memorandum from Mayor Annise Parker’s office to City Council and department heads said the first layoffs targeted workers in “non-public safety” departments.

Thursday’s layoffs are the first of many expected by May 17 — the legal deadline for handing out termination notices. Laid-off workers will remain on the city payroll until July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

Mary Benton has a copy of the Mayor’s memo, which notes that “Economic improvements seen in the last month or so have allowed us to reduce the number of planned layoffs by more than half. If there is further improvement, it is possible that some of the remaining planned layoffs could be reversed.” From your lips to Susan Combs’ ears, I say. It is true that state sales tax collections have been up considerably over the past few months, though they’re still well below pre-crash numbers. But as long as the actual revenue is beating projected revenue, the budget picture will improve. Keep your fingers crossed.

Chronicle cuts

Brutal day at 801 Texas yesterday, with more today. I confess, I don’t understand how getting rid of the people who create the content helps make the product more viable going forward, but what do I know? I’m sure they have some Cunning Master Plan to make it all make sense.

Banjo and Hair Balls have the gory details. I’d like to express my sympathies and best wishes to everyone who got the axe. There’s a lot of talent on that list, and it won’t be easily replaced. May you all find something better.

I have to say also, as a fan of the Rice Owls, that I’m truly pissed off that the Chron has let MK Bower go. He did an outstanding job on the Rice beat, and Owl fans are showing him the love for it. With the departure of Mike Murphy and Terrance Harris, who covered UH and TSU, as well, the Chron has made it clear that if it ain’t the Big XII, they won’t be paying attention. Thanks a hell of a lot.