Houston mayor, firefighter union chief debate over pay parity ballot initiative

The bid by Houston firefighters is a bold one: bypass Houston City Hall and ask voters directly for pay comparable with police officers currently earning far better salaries.

At a long-awaited head-to-head debate, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association president Marty Lancton laid out a fundamental number: Houston police have bargained for a 37 percent increase over the last decade while firefighters have netted just 3 percent.


News app users can watch the debate here.

"You pay not only firefighters and police officers for the job they do, you pay them for the job that they are willing to do, which is to sacrifice their life for any one of the citizens of Houston," said Lancton at a debate hosted by the Harris County Democratic Party.

But Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner firmly countered, arguing the cost of "pay parity" would lay waste to the city budget and force 1,000 or more employees out of their jobs.

Constrained by a budget cap, the sheer weight of a 29 percent lift in firefighter compensation, Turner contended, would be crushing.

"You cannot afford to give any one group a $100 million a year without forcing layoffs and severe disruption in city services," said Turner.

In response, Lancton claimed firefighters have carried a disproportionate share of the city's financial load for too long and rejected past raises, because they were coupled with mandatory layoffs on the force.

"On the backs of firefighters who apparently for the last 8-to-10 years have prevented this city from going bankrupt," said Lancton. "I think the firefighters are owed a 'thank you.'"

Throughout the debate, Mayor Turner accused firefighters of rejecting a standing and reasonable 9.5 percent raise while attempting to "hold the city hostage."

Turner also contended that Proposition B wouldn't deliver equal pay, but rather a higher wage than police receive because firefighter benefits are more generous.

"What the City Comptroller has said is that Proposition B is unsustainable for the City of Houston and you are going to have layoffs and you are going to have about a thousand layoffs," said Turner.

With 30 days left until voters make the call, Mayor Turner has launched a media campaign and enlisted the aid of the Greater Houston Partnership.

Firefighters have responded with a formidable ground game, with off-duty members going door to door seeking votes across the city.