Among the most bitter campaigns on the ballot this fall has been the fight over whether to grant Houston firefighters pay “parity” with police of corresponding rank and seniority.
Those in favor argue firefighters deserve to be fairly compensated, and those against — including Mayor Sylvester Turner and the police union — say the city cannot afford a huge raise overnight.
The Houston Chronicle dug into both sides’ chief claims and talking points in an attempt to clarify the issues in the debate over Proposition B.
SUPPORTERS SAY: Firefighters in other major Texas cities receive much higher salaries.
A radio ad states that Houston firefighters “earn about 30 percent less than the top five fire departments in other Texas cities.”
Houston firefighters receive a significantly lower base salary than firefighters in other large Texas cities: In the state’s four biggest cities other than Houston — Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio — firefighters receive average first-year base salaries of $51,729, according to data from each city’s website. That figure rises to $54,428 when factoring in the $60,000 starting pay approved for Dallas public safety workers beginning Jan. 1, 2019.
Meanwhile, Houston firefighters receive a first-year base salary of $40,170, or about $11,500 less than the average of the other top five cities. Accounting for other sources of pay — such as uniform allowance and holiday pay — brings Houston firefighters’ first-year compensation to $42,121. That’s 29 percent less than the Texas big-city average.
International Association of Firefighters data show these gaps persist throughout a firefighter’s career: A decade in, for example, a Houston firefighter gets pay and compensation totaling $55,121, while the average in the four other cities is $71,321.
OPPONENTS SAY: Prop. B will cost more than $100 million a year, constituting a more than 25 percent raise for firefighters.
Mayor Turner says the proposal will cost $113 million in its first full year of implementation, and City Controller Chris Brown, Houston’s elected financial watchdog, has pegged the figure at $101 million. Those estimates reflect the city’s approval this month of a new police contract that gives officers a 4 percent raise next year (and a 3 percent raise in 2020), which is relevant because parity would link firefighter salaries to police pay. Prior to the police deal, the mayor and controller’s estimates were $98.6 million and $85.2 million, respectively.
Fire union leaders have questioned the mayor’s projections but repeatedly have declined to produce their own estimate. Houston Professional Firefighters Association President Marty Lancton said after an Oct. 6 debate with Turner, “I don’t have a finance department that works for me, that I hire.”
The mayor and controller’s estimates are nearly identical in their projections of the increase to firefighters’ base salaries and the associated increase in retirement benefits, which comprise most of the projected cost of parity. The two estimates differ mostly because of varying assumptions on the cost of incentives and allowances for such things as taking college courses or training new hires.
Mike Loftin, the city of Galveston’s assistant city manager for finance, a former public budgeting professor at the University of Houston, and a finance consultant for the city of Houston, said it would be difficult for anyone to produce an independent estimate to accompany Turner and Brown’s figures.
“Calculation of police and fire salaries including, potentially, other benefits if that’s included in parity, are a couple of the most complicated calculations the city of Houston has to do in managing its budget,” he said.
SUPPORTERS SAY: Since 2011, firefighters have gotten 3 percent raises while police got 30 percent.
Firefighters say police officers have gotten raises totaling more than 30 percent since 2011, while they have received just a 3 percent raise.
Including their recently approved deal, a city document shows police will have received raises of at least 32 percent from 2011 through 2021; the Chronicle and others previously overstated the 23 percent raises police got between 2011 and 2018, before the latest contract was approved.
Firefighters have received raises of just 3 percent since 2011, though they rejected a 4 percent raise from former mayor Annise Parker (the deal included too many concessions, union officials said), and, Turner says, a 9.5 percent offer from him (more on that below). Firefighters also negotiated raises of nearly 34 percent between 2004 to 2010, the city document shows, a period when police got raises totaling 15 percent. Overall, from 2004 through this year (not counting the police raises that take effect next year), police got raises totaling 38 percent, while firefighters’ totaled 37 percent.
Firefighters also stress that the police pay bumps in recent years occurred without talk of a budget crisis.
City data show that the annual budget for police salaries is $70 million higher this fiscal year than it was in 2011 — and the figure would be larger had the number of officers on staff not dropped by about 125 since then. City officials have said the police raises triggered no budget crisis because they were implemented incrementally. On average, the increases were about 3 percent, or about $10 million, a year. These figures don’t include the newly approved raises that will take effect starting next year.
OPPONENTS SAY: Prop. B will raise taxes and fees.
Advertisements the police union has produced opposing the measure have argued it will raise taxes and fees; the firefighters’ campaign mailers say the item will not raise taxes.
Houston voters in 2004 placed a limit on the amount by which city property tax revenues can grow from one year to the next, so the council would not be able to set a higher tax rate to collect extra money to pay for parity.
The council occasionally increases various fees, but the impact of such a move likely would not greatly offset the cost of the proposal. One exception would be for Houston to impose a garbage fee, as every other large Texas city has. Charging $20 a month could generate about $100 million a year. Councilman Dwight Boykins, without suggesting an amount, floated the idea of a garbage fee as a way to pay for Prop. B at a recent council meeting.
Houston Police Officers Union president Joe Gamaldi referenced Boykins’ comments in defending the mention of higher “taxes and fees” in his group’s campaign ad, saying whether a payment is a tax or a fee matters little to a citizen paying more to City Hall.
Turner, however, repeatedly has rejected the idea of garbage fee.
SUPPORTERS SAY: Prop. B can be funded using revenue firefighters already generate.
“Houston firefighters generate over $100 million in business permits, fees and other services. Simply moving that revenue to the fire department budget would fund a fair pay increase,” a campaign mailer supporting the referendum says.
The problem with this argument is HFD’s $500 million budget comes out of the general fund, the same place the $100 million firefighters generate is deposited. Putting those dollars into a special fund devoted to HFD would mean only $400 million of the department’s budget would need to come from the general fund, but the city would have $100 million less revenue available to come up with that $400 million.
The only way trapping the revenue firefighters generate for HFD would help cover increased costs is long-term, Controller Brown said, if those revenues grow faster than the overall department budget does.
“If you take that, you’re taking it away from something else that’s being funded,” Brown said. “There’s no new money.”
OPPONENTS SAY: Prop. B will cause layoffs and cuts in services.
Turner has said the city would have to undertake widespread layoffs and cuts to services if the measure passes. Firefighters call such comments a scarce tactic, and say any mayor can find the money to fund what he wants in the city’s $5.4 billion annual budget.
It is hard to predict how any mayor will handle a spike in costs, and the city can use various machinations to soften the blow, such as deferring payments, canceling purchases and selling city land. So, how credible are Turner’s layoff predictions?
First, it is important to understand that most of the city’s $5.4 billion annual budget is in so-called “enterprise” funds, which have restricted uses — using residents’ water bills to run water and sewer plants and pipes, and running city airports using airline fees.
The dollars used to fund the police and fire departments — as well as parks, libraries, trash pickup and most other core services — come from the $2.5 billion general fund, which is fed mostly by property and sales taxes.
When the city lays off workers it is because slumping property and sales taxes, rising expenses, or some combination of the two, have created a shortfall in the general fund. And 75 percent of the general fund (excluding mandatory debt service) goes toward personnel.
The city last carried out widespread layoffs in 2011, when former mayor Parker sent pink slips to hundreds of workers to help close a large deficit; she also trimmed library hours, stopped staffing three health clinics, limited park mowings, and closed eight pools and community centers. City finance officials said 620 layoffs from the general fund that year helped to close about $62 million of the roughly $100 million deficit.
Regardless of whether the parity measure passes, Houston’s expenses have outpaced its revenues for years — the city expects to face a general fund deficit of at least $92 million in the fiscal year that starts next July.
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SUPPORTERS SAY: Prop. B is needed to stop a spike in firefighter departures.
Fire union leaders say Prop. B is needed for the department to retain experienced staff, claiming more than 275 firefighters have left for other, better-paying departments “from Houston suburbs to New York and Los Angeles.”
Retirements spiked during Turner’s push to cut workers’ pension benefits at the Legislature last year, and contribution refunds (typically, younger workers leaving for new jobs before they are eligible to collect a pension) have jumped over the last two years.
You have to reach back to 2008, however, before the tally of early departures reaches 275, according to data kept by the fire pension agency, the Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund. Lancton said the figure came from a colleague’s analysis of internal paperwork, which showed that some veteran firefighters’ departures qualified as “retirements” but actually were cases in which members were leaving to continue their careers elsewhere.
Turner has downplayed this trend, saying the city employs more firefighters now than it did in 2016. That is not quite right, though there are more firefighters on staff than there were from at least 2005 through fall 2015. A July headcount, the most recent available, listed 3,958 firefighters on staff, whereas the lowest headcount published at any point in 2016 was 4,007.
SUPPORTERS SAY: The Turner administration never officially offered firefighters a 9.5 percent raise.
Negotiating problems between the city and fire union began before Turner’s term, with the union turning down a 4 percent raise in June 2014 under former mayor Parker. The union said the offer came with benefit cuts effectively offsetting the raise.
Turner took office in January 2016. Soon after, the city and fire union began negotiating a new contract, during which the union unsuccessfully requested a 20 percent pay raise over three years, with annual raises of 8, 6 and 6 percent from 2016 through 2018. The two sides agreed to extend firefighters’ “evergreen” labor agreement, in which they went without raises in exchange for fewer restrictions on time off, until June 30, 2017.
In March 2017, the city and union took up negotiations again, with the union requesting the same pay raise — 20 percent over three years — but this time starting in 2018. The city countered with a 4 percent raise over two years; the union declared an impasse and requested arbitration in May 2017.
The city rejected the request because “the parties had not made every reasonable effort to reach an agreement on compensation and any other issues in dispute,” Turner’s press secretary Mary Benton said in an email. Lancton has said going to arbitration would have resolved the impasse before the evergreen extension expired by allowing a neutral third party to resolve the conflict.
In June 2017, the two sides mutually agreed to enter mediation. On June 22, the day of mediation, the city emailed the union a 3-year pay raise offer, which Benton said would grant firefighters a 9.5 percent in raises over three years: 3.5 percent in 2018, 3 percent each in 2019 and 2020.
Lancton said he has never seen an official offer through mediation, with the 9.5 percent proposal coming after the official mediation period ended. The city did not provide the Chronicle with written proof of the offer, though both sides are barred from disclosing details from mediation.
Regardless, on June 28, 2017 — two days before the “evergreen” period lapsed — the union sued the city over the stalled contract talks, claiming Turner’s administration failed to negotiate in good faith.
SUPPORTERS SAY: Houston’s voter-approved “public safety” fund does not go to the fire department.
“Not one cent of the voter-approved Prop. H ‘public safety’ fund created in 2006 - which can generate up to $90 million per year - has gone to the fire department budget,” Lancton wrote in a recent Houston Business Journal op-ed.
Voters passed Houston’s revenue cap in 2004, amending the city charter to limit the annual growth of property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower. Lancton is referring to voters’ 2006 decision to tweak that cap via Prop. H, letting the city raise an additional $90 million for public safety spending.
However, Prop. H did not and does not produce $90 million more each year than the year prior, and the dollars it generates are not placed in any special fund attributable specifically to Prop. H, Controller Brown said. The dollars simply are deposited into the general fund, about 57 percent of which goes to public safety.
Former mayors Parker and Bill White, from 2007 to 2014, would have needed to raise the property tax rate to collect the full $90 million in additional revenue under Prop. H. Instead, both mayors left the rate flat or trimmed it slightly each year, so Prop. H simply prevented them from being forced to cut the rate more (to avoid bringing in more revenue than was allowed, since property values typically were rising). In 2014, Houston exhausted the breathing room Prop. H had provided and, with property values still rising, typically has had to cut its tax rate each fall.
In most years since Prop. H passed, according to a preliminary analysis by Brown’s office, only a few million dollars a year of revenue — amid annual property tax collections of $1.2 billion — can be attributed to Prop. H. That’s because the $90 million cushion was added only once, in 2007, and has been built into the revenue cap calculation every year since.
“There is a general perception out there that we get $90 million in our bank account, additional, every single year,” Brown said. “But that’s not the way the calculation works.”
OPPONENTS SAY: Prop. B would create “unequal pay” between police and fire.
In a campaign TV ad, Turner says Prop. B would create “unequal pay” between the departments, implying the measure would do more than simply bring firefighters in line with police. This claim is vague, but could refer to several points Turner and others have discussed publicly.
First, Prop. B links fire salaries to police pay, but would not guarantee raises for police officers if firefighters were to be granted a pay raise in the future. There is no way to know whether that would actually happen.
Second, firefighters hired between 2004 and 2017 will, when they retire, receive more generous pensions than police officers hired during that period (which essentially delineates the gap between the first and second reforms to city workers’ retirement benefits). However, “pay” is not generally used interchangeably with “pension.”
Third, former police union president Ray Hunt has argued the parity measure creates inequities — for instance, firefighters would be able to test into the rank of “engineer/operator” after spending two years at the rank of “firefighter” and secure the same pay as a “senior police officer” who must work at least 12 years to attain that rank — but it is not clear these concerns apply to “unequal pay.”
SUPPORTERS SAY: The city is asking a judge to declare the union’s collective bargaining rights unconstitutional.
During his debate with Turner, Lancton said, “We have right now an active collective bargaining impasse lawsuit in district court to which the mayor has now filed a motion to declare our collective bargaining rights unconstitutional. That is not good faith, and that does not show you want to get a resolution.”
Court documents from the lawsuit show the city is taking issue with the section of Texas’ Local Government Code under which the union filed the ongoing impasse lawsuit. The section says that if the city “refuses to engage in arbitration,” the union may ask a district court judge to decide whether firefighters are receiving compensation that meets certain criteria laid out in a different section of the code.
If a judge finds the city violated that section, the code gives the judge power to “declare” what compensation would meet the section’s required employment conditions and to order the city to “make the affected employees whole as to the employees' past losses.”
The city has argued the code “violates the separation of powers doctrine by unconstitutionally delegating a legislative function to the judiciary,” while setting standards that are overly vague. The section, the city argued, “is unconstitutional as applied in the context of collective bargaining” between the city and union.
The union has challenged that argument. A district court judge on Monday denied the city’s motion, ruling the section constitutional.
What are the problems faced by firefighters? ›
Firefighters face serious risks on the job such as heat exhaustion, burns, physical and mental stress. Additionally, they frequently come into contact with high levels of carbon monoxide and other toxic hazards. With these dangerous exposures, this line of work presents a likelihood for many diseases.What are 3 responsibilities of a firefighter? ›
To respond to fire alarms, medical emergencies, hazardous materials, urban rescue and other calls to protect life and property; to participate in fire prevention and training; and to maintain the fire station and firefighting equipment.What are 5 responsibilities of a firefighter? ›
- Protects citizens during emergencies.
- Extinguishes fires.
- Executes rescues.
- Mitigates chemical spills.
- Prevents fire damage by conducting surveys and inspections for hazards and enforcing codes.
- Prepares citizens to prevent fire damage by developing and conducting educational and training programs.
Unstable Work-Life Balance
Firefighters work long hours within unstructured schedules, making it a challenge to create a viable work-life balance. Conventional family life may be skewed, which can lead to familial discontent and disconnection.
A Firefighter is responsible for rapidly, efficiently and safely performing various duties under emergency conditions frequently involving considerable hazard. The work includes routine duties in the maintenance of firefighting vehicles, equipment and fire service facilities.How much do firemen make? ›
|Rank||State||2017 Mean Annual Wage|
Preventing, combating and extinguishing fires with the goal of protecting lives, the environment and property. Operating tools and equipment used for firefighting safely and effectively. Providing appropriate medical care within their scope of knowledge in emergency situations.What skills do you need to be a firefighter? ›
- Communication. Firefighters use strong communication skills when working with other firefighters during emergency situations. ...
- Problem-solving. ...
- Social competence. ...
- Time management. ...
- Spatial awareness. ...
- Physical fitness. ...
- Adaptability. ...
- Mechanical aptitude.
- Maintain physical fitness. ...
- Help people and save lives. ...
- Benefit from fellowship and discipline. ...
- Operate powerful equipment. ...
- Enjoy job security. ...
- Build transferable skills.
Modern turnout jackets and pants are made of fire resistant fabrics such as Nomex, Aramid or Kevlar. Bunker gear or turnout gear is the term used by many fire departments to refer to the protective clothing worn by firefighters.
What personality type are firefighters? ›
Firefighters tend to be predominantly realistic individuals, which means that they often enjoy working outdoors or applying themselves to a hands-on project. They also tend to be social, meaning that they thrive in situations where they can interact with, persuade, or help people.What is the most important aspect of being a firefighter? ›
One of the most critical factors of the job requires firefighters to have above-average strength and agility. Several job functions cannot be performed without maintaining a proper level of fitness health.
The firefighter personality test measures the firefighter candidate's qualities needed to succeed at the job. These qualities include teamwork, flexibility, quick decision-making, positive attitude, resourcefulness, empathy, accepting and learning from feedback, and working under pressure.How stressful is fire fighting? ›
The job of wildland firefighting can often be stressful and sometimes traumatic. In the wildland fire environment, conditions can take a toll on mental health. It is vital to mental fitness to address feeling overwhelmed by stress and trauma before they become a mental health issue.What is the biggest risk to life in a fire emergency? ›
Most people who die in fires die from the toxic gases, thick smoke and lack of oxygen. In a fire, breathing even small amounts of these toxic elements can be disorienting, causing some people to pass out.What is the leading cause of firefighter deaths? ›
According to IAFF, occupational cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters, accounting for more than 65 percent of the line-of-duty deaths added to the IAFF Fire Fighter Memorial Wall of Honor each year.What is the fire professionals greatest future challenge? ›
“The greatest challenge that NFPA, other organizations, and the more than 27,000 fire departments in the U.S. have is overcoming the complacency that exists about fire among average citizens,” Pauley said.