Houston firefighter pay deal: $650M in bonds for back pay approved by council

Rhetorical guns blazing, Houston Mayor John Whitmire waged war on behalf of a $650 million back-pay settlement with the City's long-suffering firefighters - a massive obligation inherited from his predecessor Sylvester Turner who failed to negotiate a labor deal during both his terms of office.

"We're playing with fire...Any delay is going to gut this settlement and to start over is absolutely in my judgement and experts, irresponsible. This has been going on for eight years. The public is tired of reading about it. They elected you, they elected us to make a responsible tough decision," said Whitmire.

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Council Member Edward Pollard led the pushback, suggesting over and over that the settlement was too generous and that voters should have the final say.

"If it were your money in your savings account, you would ask more questions. But because it's the taxpayer's money, and it's not coming out of your Wells Fargo or Chase account, you are not asking the questions. You all want to just vote on a number just because it's a number, and it feels good, then go ahead with that," said Pollard.

In a vote-clinching rebuttal, the Mayor told Council any delay for a City-wide vote would blow up the settlement and trigger a court proceeding which could easily push the back-pay tab beyond $1 billion.

"It will only get tougher and more expensive," said Whitmire, adding "We did a heck of a job to wrap it up at $650 million."

"If I got to dig out of a hole, I'd rather dig out of one that's $650 million rather than $1.7 billion," said Council Member Willie Davis.

In a lopsided 14 to 3 vote, council approved issuance of the bonds to fund the back pay settlement. In the lopsided vote to move forward with the bonds, Pollard and Council Member Tiffany Thomas were joined by Council Member Mary Nan Huffman, who also voted no.

Firefighter Union President Marty Lancton confirmed his rank-and-file were willing to return to court if the city council's call were different.

"I think the members' feeling is, that if you want to roll the dice, let's go. We are ready.  What we did, giving the settlement was good for taxpayers, good for firefighters, was responsible and reasonable," said Lancton.


Council has yet to approve the second component of the settlement with firefighters - a 5-year collective bargaining agreement with additional benefits and annual pay hikes.

Council Member Sallie Alcorn offered perspective on the City's past management of resources.

"When we got the ARPA money, many people said this is one-time money, we should settle this deal, and we didn't do it," said Alcorn.