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Houston firefighters take battle over pay to voters

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 13, 2018

In this Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, photo, Houston firefighters Jason Beasley left, and Bucky Glenn carry a sign to a truck as they prepare to go out and talk to people about Proposition B, the pay “parity” item on the November ballot, in Houston. (Brett Coomer / AP)
In this Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, photo, Houston firefighters Jason Beasley left, and Bucky Glenn carry a sign to a truck as they prepare to go out and talk to people about Proposition B, the pay “parity” item on the November ballot, in Houston. (Brett Coomer / AP)
By Juan A. Lozano Associated Press

HOUSTON – Houston firefighters who have been in a bitter battle with the city for higher wages are taking their case to voters.

Firefighters in the nation’s fourth-largest city are asking for pay parity with local police in a proposal that Houston’s mayor insists would be “a financial disaster for the city.”

Houston residents will vote on the plan for the city’s 4,000 firefighters on Nov. 6.

The firefighters’ union said its members have had only a 3 percent pay raise since 2011 and they are woefully underpaid compared with Houston police and other fire departments across the country. Houston police officers got a 7 percent pay raise earlier this month.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he respects firefighters, but that the proposal would cost too much. The city estimates the initial cost at up to $100 million. Turner said city services would have to be cut and hundreds of city workers, including first responders, would lose their jobs.

Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, called Turner’s dire financial warnings a “phony budget crisis.” Lancton has questioned the changing figures the city has used to calculate the price tag, but he didn’t offer his own cost estimate.

Lancton said some firefighters have to work two or three jobs to support their families.

“When you don’t equally value the service and sacrifice of firefighters just like you do police officers, you fail to make public safety the No. 1 priority,” Lancton said.

The plan called for firefighters and police officers of similar rank or status to be paid equally. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the concept is as old as the two professions, but pay parity has steadily eroded since the 1950s. Several large U.S. cities, including Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York still have pay parity between firefighters and police officers.

According to data from the International Association of Fire Fighters, the starting salary of a firefighter in Houston is $40,170; in Phoenix it’s $48,526; in Chicago it’s $56,304; and in Los Angeles it’s $72,704.

Among Texas’ largest cities, Austin, Fort Worth and San Antonio all have higher starting firefighter salaries. Last month, Dallas boosted the starting pay of its firefighters to $60,000.

In Houston, a firefighter trainee’s salary is $28,024 while a police cadet’s salary is $42,000. After graduating from the police academy, the salary goes up to nearly $50,000.

The battle over pay follows a bitter fight over pension reform, led by Turner, to reduce the city’s huge pension debt. Amid the ongoing tension, two firefighters last year snubbed Turner by not shaking his hand at public events.

After the most recent contract negotiations failed, Houston firefighters submitted a petition to the city in July 2017 to put the pay parity measure on the ballot. Firefighters accused Turner’s administration of slow-walking the petition’s verification process and preventing it from being validated in time for the November 2017 election. They later filed a lawsuit to get the measure on this year’s ballot.

Turner, who’s campaigned against the referendum at town hall meetings and on social media, said firefighters would need a 29 percent pay hike to bring them in line with police officers.

“I love the firefighters. I respect what they do,” Turner said at a town hall meeting Tuesday. “But the city cannot afford to give any employee group anything close to a 29 percent pay raise.”

Turner said that between 2005 and 2010, firefighters received raises totaling about 34 percent. He said the city has offered a 9.5 percent pay raise that is still on the table.

Those against the measure include local business groups, Democratic and Republican officials, and the union representing police officers, he said. The union representing municipal workers has said it doesn’t oppose the measure.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said he believes the ballot measure has a good chance of being approved because of the “positive view most people have of first responders, especially firefighters.”

While both sides still have incentives to find an equitable solution to the pay dispute, the “poisoned” relationship between the two sides might ultimately make that too difficult to achieve, Rottinghaus said.

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