The mayor of Houston plans to lay off 400 firefighters to fund the pay raises voters mandated in a referendum in November.
Democratic Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to send layoff notices to approximately 10 percent of the firefighting force within weeks, according to Fox News. The layoffs include 68 cadets who Turner declined to promote during a hiring freeze.
Turner opposed the raises required in Proposition B, which was approved by 59 percent of voters. The pay raises would match the salaries of firefighters to those of police officers of the same rank.
The pay raises account for $80 million of Houston’s $197 million budget gap. Turner will look to issue $30 million in back pay to firefighters.
“So, basically, on May 9 you want to be hanging out near a firefighter because he’s going to be buying,” Councilman Greg Travis told the Houston Chronicle. “He’s going to have a lot of money on that day.”
According to Turner, it’s nearly impossible to fund the pay raised without layoffs.
“When you factor in Proposition B, it’s $197 million that we have to find a way to balance between now and June, and unless there’s additional revenue coming in, we cannot do it without there being significant layoffs,” Turner said, KHOU-TV reported.
To cover the budget gap, the mayor is asking city departments to cut their budgets by 3 percent. The move may result in additional layoffs, although the police force will not be affected, Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said, according to the Chronicle.
The layoffs will not affect the number of firefighters on duty at any given time, Fire Chief Sam Peña told council members. The fire departments $503 million budget was cut by $25 million, Peña said.
“The mayor’s hatred of firefighters now will have terrible consequences for us and for the public,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said.
“He’s willing to destroy public safety in Houston to punish firefighter families. A world-class fire department is being destroyed from within by third-rate politicians.”
The fire union proposed phasing in the new raises with all of the firefighters reaching police pay levels by July 2020.
Turner warned of potential layoffs if the proposition passed and campaigned against the raises.
“People want to put the administration in a box,” Turner said. “If you don’t implement Prop. B, people criticize you for not implementing Proposition B. When we move to implement Prop. B, people say, ‘We don’t want the layoffs.’ Well, you can’t have it both ways.”
Turner’s plan features a parity requirement for education, which would require firefighters to have the same educational attainment level as police officers in order to receive equal pay. Police officers in Houston are required to have a master’s degree in order to become an assistant police chief, but firefighters don’t have the same requirement.
“If within police, if there are educational requirements to get to a certain rank, then the same thing ought to be expected of fire, if you want parity,” Turner said.
The mayor’s plan has its skeptics.
“I’m not sure that’s going to fly,” Councilman Mike Knox said.
Turner’s plan still requires the approval of the Houston City Council.
Houston firefighters earned national recognition for their rescue efforts during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The storm killed 68 people and caused $125 billion in damage.