Houston approves plan for voluntary furloughs

HOUSTON The city is trying to save money as it faces a big budget shortfall the next fiscal year.

"While the city has been able to withstand the current economic crisis longer than most, we are now faced with budget challenges that force us to make tough fiscal choices," said Mayor Parker. "I sincerely appreciate HOPE's willingness to offer suggestions that will help the City as it works to find fiscally-responsible solutions for dealing with our ongoing budget situation."

At a news conference this afternoon, Mayor Parker called on city employees to start voluntary furloughs this month. Mandatory furloughs for all of the city's civilian employees are scheduled to start in January.

"While City of Houston employees are not to blame, HOPE is proud to be part of the solution to help close the City's budget gap," said Melvin Hughes, HOPE president and City of Houston maintenance mechanic. "As a member of the city's workforce, I'm doing my part by taking a voluntary furlough day."

There are approximately 21,000 employees -- 13,000 civilians -- across our city. The idea is to close a budget gap currently projected to be between $50 and $80 million.

"Hopefully, if enough employees take advantage of it, we probably could save anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million," said City Controller Ronald Green. "Obviously, with a budget the size of ours, that may not seem like a lot, but once you start taking things like that into consideration and couple it with other cost-saving measures, we get to see the benefit of it."

Green said he is urging all his fellow elected officials to lead by example and to take a furlough day this month. He plans to do so.

Employees in the police and fire departments are not included in this voluntary furlough program due to mandatory staffing levels. In other words, if one person takes the day off, another would need to be paid overtime in order to properly staff the police station or fire house.

Employees are encouraged to focus on utilizing days that are within the period of December 11 to December 24, as that is when payroll deductions are at their lowest for the year, thus helping to minimize the financial impact. City employees who volunteer are prohibited from performing any city work on a furlough day.

Under the city's agreement with Houston Municipal Employee Pension System, employees were only able to receive up to five credited service days for voluntary or involuntary furloughs. The Board of Directors of the Houston Municipal Employees Pension System took quick action in approving a change in this agreement so that up to ten credited service days are allowed, eliminating any possibility of a negative impact on employee pensions in the event an extended furlough program is required in the New Year. City Council will be asked to vote on this change next week.

Through sufficient participation in this program, Mayor Parker hopes to limit the need for an involuntary furlough program for municipal employees, although mandatory furloughs are possible beginning in January.

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