City of Houston, firefighters union reach deal

HOUSTON The city and the firefighters union have initially agreed to a three-year deal that would save firefighters from getting pay raises for the next two years in lieu of being laid off. On the third year, firefighters would receive only a 1 percent raise. 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.

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