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With Houston Mayor John Whitmire poised to unveil his first budget in two weeks, officials on Tuesday said they still are hammering out the final details of a proposed $1.5 billion settlement with the city’s firefighter union.

The mayor’s office has yet to provide a copy of the proposed settlement to City Council or City Controller Chris Hollins’ office, leaving them with limited details about a deal that could shape the budget for decades to come.

Instead, City Attorney Arturo Michel and Finance Director Melissa Dubowski said they are crafting provisions around special pay for paramedics and arson investigators, as well as staffing requirements for ambulances.

Their remarks at a joint hearing of City Council’s budget and labor committees came a month and a half after Whitmire announced the financial terms of the settlement, pegging its cost at $650 million. Since then, officials have acknowledged that interest and fees on a bond will drive the package’s total cost to about $1.5 billion.

Whitmire hopes to win City Council approval of the settlement before the July 1 budget deadline so firefighter raises can go into effect immediately.

At an April 2 budget hearing, the city was unable to give a final figure for the cost of benefits, such as incentive pay for specific jobs and education. On Tuesday, Dubowski said the city aimed to cap the total annual cost of those benefits at $10 million.

The settlement will be money well spent for residents, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton told the council members.

Houston firefighters have been working without a contract since their last one expired in 2017. The proposed settlement averted a trial on a lawsuit from their union set for March 25. As the legal case played out, former Mayor Syvlester Turner in 2021 secured an 18 percent raise for firefighters over three years.

Lancton said working without a contract has been devastating for morale at the Fire Department, which had the lowest job satisfaction of any city department in a recent survey. A dwindling number of firefighters are responding to a rising number of 911 calls, he said.

“You cannot run a fire department when they are being treated the way that they were,” Lancton said.

Two council members expressed concerns about either a lack of details or the plan’s provisions, however. District C Councilmember Abbie Kamin said it was difficult to evaluate the plan without a full copy of the forward-looking, five-year collective bargaining agreement the administration reached at the same time as the back-pay settlement.

Meanwhile, District E Councilmember Fred Flickinger, who represents one of the city’s most conservative districts, said he had heard fears about the package’s cost and a provision eliminating random drug testing.

“Everybody I've had discussions with is concerned whether the city can afford it. But the one topic that comes up that people are generally shocked about is the random drug testing elimination,” he said.

Lancton said the provision was aimed in part at reducing the operational burden of testing and emphasized the fire department still will be able to order employees to submit to tests.

The hearing will not be the last on the consequential firefighter settlement. City Controller Chris Hollins is scheduled to give his own presentation May 6, and Whitmire could release more details during the May 14 budget rollout.

City Council is scheduled to begin holding departmental budget hearings on May 15.

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Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...