AUSTIN, Texas (KTRK) -- The final showdown between the city of Houston and its firefighters started Tuesday. The two sides have been fighting for years over pay and collective bargaining rights.
Justices heard arguments from attorneys representing the city, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters' Association, and the Houston Police Officers' Union. They're all involved in this one case that will finally decide the rules determining how firefighters are paid.
The city of Houston and the union representing police both sued the firefighters' union to stop an amendment that citizens voted on and passed back in 2018. Proposition B sets firefighter pay at the same level as a similarly-raked police officer. The problem is that police in Houston make more money than firefighters.
Attorneys for the city and police argued that state law prohibits this type of joint-pay standard. They had to defend their stance by answering tough questions from the justices.
Reagan M. Brown, an attorney for the city of Houston, broke down the different laws.
"There is nothing in 021 that creates a forward exception that somehow allows Prop B, which of course, was not agreed to by the city. It was a citizen-initiated proposition," Brown explained.
"Isn't that effectively agreement by the city due to the charter?" Justice Brett Busby asked in response to Brown.
"Now the city has to enforce it... even though it's in direct conflict with (Chapter) 174 (a state law that prohibits this type of joint pay standard). That's why preemption is required here. The city is cast in a position where it has to comply, on one hand, with 174 and the private sector standard. Then it's having to comply with Prop B," Brown said.
Attorneys for the firefighters' union argued that the laws do not conflict.
"Chapter 174 was never intended to provide the exclusive method of calculating firefighter pay. Parties can reach a collective bargaining agreement without ever thinking about comparable pay," Thomas R. Phillips, a firefighters' union attorney, said.
Justice Jane Bland countered by saying, "But, absent an agreement, the expressed preemption clause that says this is the method of calculating the pay."
"There is an expressed preemption clause that is not contrary. I'll get to why they don't conflict," Phillips responded.
A decision on this case could come in early 2023.
Following Tuesday's hearing, City Attorney Arturo Michel said:
"In June 2021, the City of Houston gave firefighters an 18% raise over three years. If Houston does not prevail in the Prop B case, a significant financial burden will threaten the city's finances and its ability to deliver services. It will force significant structural changes to the fire department and will result in a reduction of personnel from departments across the city, including police and fire. We believe that the Texas Supreme Court will see clearly that Prop B and Chapter 174.252 are nothing more than unconstitutional end runs around the collective bargaining process Houston voters chose for their firefighters."
Firefighters would be entitled to millions in raises and back pay.