Fire pay debate off after disagreement over rules

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City Controller Chris Brown addresses pay parity in a council committee meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018. (KTRK)

A head-to-head debate over "pay parity" between Mayor Sylvester Turner and the president of the fire union will not go on as planned after the union pulled out of the debate.

"We looked forward to the debate," Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighter's Association, said in a news release. "We recognize that party insiders failed to stop the manipulation of the ground rules to advantage the mayor. We are disappointed in the... acquiescence to the mayor, but are grateful for the support of HCDP precinct chairs and the many Houstonians they represent."

The forum, hosted by the Harris County Democratic Party, was to be moderated by Lisa Falkenberg, editorial board editor for the Houston Chronicle. It would've been the first time the two have gone head-to-head to discuss the contentious issue that has opened a chasm between the mayor, police and fire officials.

Union officials said it was important to provide rules that protect equal time and create fair questions. They said they were still in negotiations when the news release was sent out that the debate was on.
Houston's fire union led a citizen petition to put pay parity on the ballot for voters to decide. It would require the city to pay firefighters the same as police officers of similar rank. The move comes after years of impasse between the fire union and mayors, past and present, on how much firefighters should be paid. The last pay raise the department received was in 2011.

Houston firefighters are the lowest-paid when compared to other large cities in Texas and around the nation.

In Texas, the highest paid firefighters are in Austin, with an average pay of $52,070 for the first year of service, compared to $40,170 in Houston, according to data from the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Turner frequently points to an offer he says is still on the table: 9.5 percent over three years. Fire officials say that offer doesn't make up for years of underpayment and would come with strings attached. Fire officials say firefighters gave up millions during the pension reform issue, led by Turner, and still haven't been made whole in pay.

The lack of agreement led fire union officials to take their appeal straight to the voters. Turner has hit back, saying the measure could send the city into financial turmoil and threatened hundreds of layoffs if the measure passes.

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