Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

The city would have saved hundreds of millions of dollars if it had raised Houston firefighter pay six years ago compared to a proposed $650 million back-pay settlement, City Controller Chris Hollins said Monday in an analysis Mayor John Whitmire swiftly rejected as irrelevant.

Hollins’ presentation suggested the settlement would be much less expensive if it were pegged to hypothetical pay raises that former Mayor Sylvester Turner could have doled out years ago.

The controller’s presentation came with high stakes for him, Houston taxpayers and Whitmire, who is trying to win council approval for the deal in his first big test as mayor.

Hollins said he was not trying to take sides, but the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association immediately rebuked his presentation as an irrelevant, inaccurate attack on the mayor.

Whitmire, in a statement, said the analysis was nothing more than an “academic” exercise that failed to take into account relevant law.

Settlement scrutinized

Whitmire in March said he had reached a deal to resolve a seven-year impasse with Houston firefighters over their pay, which had fallen behind that of other cities in Texas as department staffing shrank.

The total cost: $1.5 billion, which includes roughly $1 billion for back-pay settlement, plus the interest and fees on a bond to pay for it, as well as the cost of a forward-looking collective bargaining agreement.

Whitmire and the firefighters union say without the settlement, the city could have faced a court judgment of up to $1.2 billion for back pay alone. The settlement gave the city financial certainty while creating a path to grow the department, they say.

The details of the negotiations were shrouded in secrecy because of ongoing litigation. In his presentation Monday, Hollins attempted to craft scenarios to serve as yardsticks.

The firefighters’ last contract with the city expired in July 2017. Hollins said that if the city had raised their hourly wage to match an average of four big cities in Texas, and kept raising it to the average in the years since, the city would have had to pay $330 million more between fiscal year 2018 and 2014. If the settlement had been based on that scenario, the total cost with interest would have been roughly $380 million.

Other, less generous scenarios comparing Houston firefighters to police, other municipal employees, or phasing in raises less aggressively, would have driven the total cost down as low as $110 million.

Comparison questioned

Hollins’ presentation came with a key footnote, stating his office had not attempted to perform a legal analysis laying out “the likelihood of various judgment outcomes.”

That decision rendered the rest of the analysis meaningless, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said Monday.

Houston’s firefighters had sued the city for failing to reach a contract. Before the settlement, the city was facing a March 25 trial in which the law would have required a judge to compare Houston firefighter pay to that of their private-sector peers. Lancton said private-sector firefighters make 50 percent more.

“The law is very clear,” Lancton said. “What isn't clear are the motivations of the controller to continue to politicize this issue. His facts are wrong. His scenarios are legally inapplicable.”

The controller’s analysis also failed to factor in the cost of the pension benefits and additional overtime pay that would have kicked in with higher pay, Lancton said.

Hollins' office said it did include the cost of pension payments, but not overtime pay.

“He is politicizing an issue in order to undermine Mayor Whitmire, and that is not helpful for the citizens, and it is certainly not helpful for the brave men and women who have been out all weekend rescuing citizens in floodwaters,” Lancton said.

Whitmire also took a dig at Hollins in a statement. He had analyses similar to Hollins’ available to him when he reached the deal with the firefighters, Whitmire said.

“Monday-morning quarterbacks may choose to ignore the fact that Texas law mandates firefighter pay to be based on private-sector compensation comparisons, not public sector, but as mayor and lead negotiator, I cannot ignore that fact,” Whitmire said. “It very well could have been a less costly deal to settle with the Houston Professional Firefighters Association, but that is a conversation to have with the previous administration eight years ago.”

Going forward

The other part of Hollins’ analysis compared the five-year, forward-looking contract with firefighters to other cities in Texas.

Hollins said the July 1 raises under that proposed contract would bring Houston within 3 percent of the statewide average. If the city raises pay by 6 percent each year through fiscal year 2029, one possibility under the proposed settlement, the department's average could rise to 9 percent above the state average by then.

Those 6 percent raises would not kick in unless the city is able to raise revenues, however.

On Monday, Hollins said additional revenue will be necessary regardless given the $160-200 million structural imbalance the city had even before the proposed settlement.

District F Councilmember Tiffany Thomas said she was intrigued by two scenarios laid out by Hollins that amounted to between $110 million and $260 million for back-pay. The city could pay out the cost of such a settlement using its more than $400 million fund balance, she said.

Hollins cautioned that depleting the city’s reserves so quickly – whether on a reduced settlement or in an attempt to bring down the long-term cost of the mayor’s proposed settlement bond – could create problems in itself.

“Whatever cash you give away today to try and take off a chunk of that settlement, it does take away from your long term debt, certainly. It also takes away from the cushion that we have to deal with the structural deficit and those challenges we have right now,” he said.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

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...