City of Houston, firefighters union reach tentative deal

May 18, 2011 1:56:28 AM PDT
The jobs of hundreds of Houston firefighters are now safe because of a compromise reached just hours before the negotiation deadline.

This deal brings a lot of relief to neighborhoods concerned about their safety.

"Particularly in those high urban areas, high concentration of population, you need to have those services full throttle there because we need to protect our citizens," Heights homeowner Elizabeth Theiss said.

The Heights is a place that has experienced a rash of arsons.

"You may be able to apply more fiscal responsibility but when it comes to police and fire service, I think that's the one area that you can't skimp on," Heights homeowner Kenneth Dunn said.

Parents at a Heights ballpark we visited Tuesday night can go home knowing pink slips were not handed to any firefighters Tuesday.

"It is something that will absolutely prevent the immediate layoff of firefighters," Houston Mayor Annise Parker said. "I'm personally relieved. I know we're all grateful, the citizens of Houston, I'm sure, will be happy."

The tentative three-year deal guarantees no layoffs in the first year with wage freezes the first two years and a 1 percent raise the third year, with a wage opener dependent on the city's financial status.

Jeff Caynon, the president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, says they made tens of millions of dollars in concessions with a priority to continue services provided and prevent layoffs.

"On balance, I can say it is what it is. It's certainly not anything to get too excited about. I think it's important to have those guarantees in place, but I think it could've been a better deal," Caynon said.

Negotiations went into the final hour. There is a deadline to give employees -- 45 days notice if they were being laid off.

The deal comes on the heels of the layoffs of 700 civilian personnel.

But down the street from the ballpark, staffing at the fire house won't change.

"I think it should be an attitude of putting everything on the table and just keep it down to the bare bones and stop spending money we don't have," Theiss said.

The contract must be approved by more than half of the union members and also voted on by City Council members.

Earlier Tuesday

Talks got underway at around 10am. At least 238 firefighters were put on notice that if the city and the union cannot come to an agreement, they will be laid off. The fight is over the nature of cuts that had already been agreed upon last week.

On one side of City Hall there are lots of firefighters pleading with Mayor Annise Parker and Houston council members to not lay them off because people need their services. On the other side, the union and the city are trying to come to an agreement to avoid job loss.

Dozens of firefighters packed into City Hall Tuesday afternoon showing solidarity and driving home their point -- no matter how tight the budget, the city shouldn't lay off firefighters.

"Basically it affects our safety because we need those additional guys on scene for whatever is going on, whether it's a fire -- even if it's an EMS call, we need those additional people there," firefighter Roy Cormier said.

Mayor Parker has made it clear she doesn't want to lay off any firefighters but emphasized on Monday that the city needs some permanent concessions in order to balance the budget.

"There have to be some permanent savings, some real savings to the city to make this work," Parker said on Monday.

On Tuesday morning, negotiations continued between the city and the fire union. The city says if firefighters were just willing to make some adjustments to vacation policy, it would save $2.3 million a year in overtime, but the union says it's already offered enough concessions.

"The concessions we're talking about at the bargaining table are all sacrifices that were offered up by the firefighters. The city didn't come in with a solution to this problem -- we did," union president Jeff Caynon said.

In a city plagued by civilian layoffs and budget woes, the question for many veteran firefighters is what are they willing to give up to save their fellow firefighters' jobs?

"As far as what I'm willing to do, it doesn't matter, it's what the union wants to do, they're the ones who represent us and I support them," firefighter Brian Rehbein said.

On Friday, it appeared the city and the union were in agreement over an estimated $13 million in cuts, but the union says it wants the cuts to be temporary, and to be reversed as the city's financial situation improves. The city says it wants them to be permanent.

Firefighters say any reduction in their numbers will put lives at risk.

"I need every one of those men and women with me on the job and on the line and so in that respect, I would be at risk, very much so, as would all of my other firefighters on scene with me," said Houston firefighter Scott Wilke.

"It really doesn't make sense when you are saying we're going to do badly for two years and then, by the city's own estimates and by their five year projection, we are going to do better in years three, four and five," said Caynon. "So why do you still need concessions from firefighters if you're going to do better?"

Among many issues being negotiated is vacation time. Currently, it's all the same regardless of when it's taken, but the city would like to instead advise firefighters to make a deal that is a little sweeter by taking vacation time away during the months everyone wants to be off, such as Christmas time and during the summer when kids are out of school.

These talks could go on all day. If a handshake agreement isn't reached, the mayor has said layoffs will follow.


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