eDITOR'S nOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the total cost of the 9.5 percent raise offered to Houston firefighters by Mayor Sylvester Turner earlier this year. It would have cost $69 million over three years, not one year. Houstonia regrets the error.
On its surface, it seems like a no-brainer. Proposition B, up for a vote in Houston on November 6, would grant city firefighters “pay parity” with HPD officers. Everyone loves firefighters, right? They save lives. And we’re all for fairness. So why are people constantly squabbling about this issue?
If you find yourself scratching your head and spacing out every time anyone tries to explain what on earth is actually going on here, you’re not alone. Because like so many things, it’s not quite as simple as it seems. Here are five things to know:
1. What exactly is pay parity?
It’s the idea that police officers and firefighters of similar rank and service length should receive the same pay. The concept dates back to more than a century ago, when the first professional departments of both types were founded. Today a number of big cities, including New York, Chicago, and Dallas, employ pay parity. Houston did so, too, until the early 2000s, when its departments negotiated separate deals. Police agreed to raises in exchange for pension and benefit cuts, while firefighters rejected the raises and continued to bulk up their pensions, leading to the current 25 percent pay gap between the two entities.
2. Why is it on the ballot?
About a year ago, contract negotiations between the city and its firefighters broke down—yet again—leaving them without raises for the third year running. They were already upset about Mayor Sylvester Turner’s solution to Houston’s ongoing budget crisis, which, however unpopular it may be to say so, is largely the result of its employee-pension obligations. The mayor cut benefits and increased pension-contribution requirements for all city employees, a move that, according to Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton, amounted to a pay cut. So the firefighters decided to go around the city entirely, collecting enough signatures to put Prop B before voters this month.
3. Is it really that big of a difference?
Not at the beginning of employment, no. Right now, firefighters and police officers start off making about the same salary, just above $40,000. However, members of the HFD see their salaries max out at somewhere around $60,000 to $70,000 for a fire captain, while HPD officers who make captain can earn more than $100,000. Proposition opponents insist this is because job requirements and duties are completely different; supporters, of course, disagree.
4. What will this thing cost?
In January firefighters rejected Turner’s offer of a 9.5 percent salary increase, which would have cost the city about $69 million over three years. The mayor says that offer, which is still on the table, is as much as the city can afford. If Prop B passes—and most political analysts predict it will—the price tag will be $98 million the first year, a number that, according to Turner, will only increase after HPD raises negotiated this September go into effect next July. For their part, fire union reps insist the amount is inflated; as of this writing, they have yet to offer their own estimate.
5. Why doesn’t the city have more money?
One, Houston’s coffers are still depleted from Harvey. Two, the only way to pull in more revenue is to increase property taxes, which isn’t an option, thanks to the revenue cap voters approved in 2004. As such, Turner has warned repeatedly that passing Prop B will come at the cost of about 1,000 jobs, plus reductions of city services. Lancton insists this is just a scare tactic, but ahead of Election Day, Turner has already instituted a hiring freeze. Anyway, if and when the proposition passes, it’ll be easy to figure out which side was right.