Turner, fire union to debate ballot initiative

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

Mayor Sylvester Turner will go head-to-head with the Houston fire union Saturday in what's billed as a "town hall" to discuss Proposition B, known also as "pay parity" for firefighters.

The forum, hosted by the Harris County Democratic Party, will be moderated by Lisa Falkenberg, editorial board editor for the Houston Chronicle. It will be 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.

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.

The announcement comes the same day City Controller Chris Brown presented his cost analysis of the ballot measure, estimating the measure would cost $85 million a year. His estimation is $13 million lower than city finance's estimate of $98 million but doesn't include all the extra pay incentives and other special pay some firefighters receive.

Union officials haven't provided an estimate of how much it might cost.

Despite the difference, Brown's assessment remained similar to that of finance director Tantri Emo.

"We need to find a way to give firefighters a raise that we can actually afford," Brown said.

Saturday's forum is at St. John's United Methodist Church, 2019 Crawford, from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.

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