Houston Mayor: No layoffs after Prop B ruled unconstitutional

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association quickly said it would appeal the judge's ruling, and later filed a “notice of appeal” with her court


Jasper Scherer
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said the city would rescind layoff notices issued to more than 300 firefighters and municipal employees after a state district judge ruled Proposition B, the pay parity measure approved by voters last November, unconstitutional.

In her ruling, District Judge Tanya Garrison said Prop B was preempted by a chapter of the Texas Local Government Code, and declared it void because it violates the Texas Constitution.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by the Houston Police Officers' Union following the November election that argued the pay parity measure requiring the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and seniority conflicts with a provision of the Local Government Code that says firefighters should receive comparable pay to that of private sector employees.

The ruling came days after the city sent Prop B-adjusted paychecks to firefighters, and three weeks before Houston city council is scheduled to consider approving the city’s budget for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Turner has estimated that fully implementing the firefighters' raises mandated by Prop B would cost the city $79 million a year, contributing to a $179 million budget hole the council must close by the end of June. Unless the raises are phased in over several years, the city would have to lay off hundreds of employees to help offset the cost, he has said.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association quickly said it would appeal Garrison’s ruling, and later filed a “notice of appeal” with her court.

Turner announced the ruling during Wednesday’s weekly city council meeting. Afterward, the mayor said he would rescind the 60-day layoff notices sent in recent weeks to 220 firefighters and more than 110 fire cadets and municipal workers. He also said the fire department would reverse more than 400 demotions handed out to firefighters as part of Fire Chief Sam Peña’s efforts to cuts costs in the face of Prop B.

The mayor otherwise 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. Turner said that firefighters deserve a pay raise of “at least” 9.5 percent, a figure he previously floated, adding that he intends to negotiate 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.”

HPFFA President Marty Lancton, in a statement released after the ruling but before the mayor’s post-council press conference, said the ruling is a “disappointment, but our fight for what’s right is far from over.” He noted that Garrison’s predecessor, Randy Wilson, previously had ruled that Prop B was “not contrary” to the Local Government Code when he dissolved a temporary restraining order blocking implementation of the parity measure last December.

Garrison took over the case in January after defeating Wilson in the November midterms. Last month, she ordered the city and the police and fire unions to enter into mediation in hopes they would come to an agreement on phasing in the Prop B raises over several years. Turner has said such an agreement would eliminate the need for layoffs, and while both sides supported the idea, the union complained that Turner refused to hand over police pay data that would prove his offers would fully implement Prop B.

Lancton, asked about the prospect of further negotiations with Turner, said the union “has never one time said we are not willing to sit down.” He noted that in the ongoing appellate court case — which stems from June 2017, when the fire union sued the city over stalled contract talks — the city is seeking to render unconstitutional a critical part of the collective bargaining process, through which firefighters negotiate their pay.

Meanwhile, Houston Police Officers Union President Joe Gamaldi praised Garrison’s ruling and called on the fire union to negotiate a “reasonable” pay raise with the mayor.

“We have an opportunity to stop the costly lawsuits, stop the litigation, stop the rhetoric and work out a deal, because, ultimately, that is what our community wants,” Gamaldi said.

Wednesday afternoon, city staff and council members were working to determine the financial impact of Garrison’s ruling and the repeal of that previously approved layoffs. Turner said the fire department’s payroll would revert back to its pre-Prop B level, costing the city about $2 million less every two weeks through the end of June.

The mayor said it was unclear how the city would handle the raises retroactive to Jan. 1 that were delivered to firefighters last Friday, though he said he does not intend to “claw back” funds from any firefighter.

Lancton said hundreds of firefighters received no raises. A mayoral spokeswoman said that was because those firefighters did not have the educational degree required by the corresponding police rank.

Wednesday’s ruling came about amid a series of city budget workshops, during which council members have sought to find ways to trim the fiscal 2020 spending plan in hopes of averting layoffs.

A handful of council members, including District G Councilman Greg Travis, said the council should continue searching for ways to cut the city budget, despite the unexpected ruling.

District E Councilman Dave Martin, who chairs the council’s budget committee, said city council should approve a pay raise for firefighters based on the city’s last offer in 2017 before collective bargaining ended in impasse. Such a raise would go into effect when fiscal 2020 begins July 1, Martin said.

“We’re going to keep falling behind in fire department pay if we keep this process up,” Martin said. “This is going to be appealed and appealed and appealed, and the only ones that are going to win are the lawyers.”

Since 2011, firefighters have received raises of just 3 percent after rejecting incremental raises they say were too low or included too many concessions. Police officers have received raises totaling more than 30 percent during the same period, and are set to receive a 4 percent raise starting July 1. Firefighters would have received that pay bump, too, under Prop B.

District D Councilman Dwight Boykins said council members had found “a lot of extra money in different departments” to cover the cost of Prop B. He disagreed with Turner’s positive assessment of the ruling, calling it “a disappointment” to voters who approved the referendum. Prop B passed during the November midterms with about 59 percent of the vote.

“I don’t know if it’s personal or what the issue is, but we as council members should vote to uphold the will of the voters,” Boykins said.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the city and police union praised Garrison for her ruling and projected confidence that it would withstand the fire union’s appeal. Kelly Sandill, who represents the police union, contended that the order from Wilson, the prior judge who ruled for the fire union, “did not do the depth of analysis that, from our perspective, is required.”

Fire union Troy Blakeney disagreed.

“There is nothing in (Garrison’s) order that provides the logic of her reasoning, that sets out what she was thinking and why, other than the fact that she ruled that Proposition B was unconstitutional,” Blakeney said.

The appellate court is unlikely to render a final ruling before the end of the year, Blakeney said, because it typically takes cases eight to 12 months to get through Texas’ appeals courts. He said the union continues to believe the law favors firefighters.

———

©2019 the Houston Chronicle

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2019 firechief.com. All rights reserved.