A long-running dispute between Houston firefighters and City Hall over first responders’ pay is among several down-ballot issues and races voters in Texas cities will decide Tuesday — once they get past a bevy of high-profile national and statewide races that lured massive amounts of voters to the polls during early voting.
Houston’s so-called “parity” proposition aims to align firefighters’ pay with what police officers earn. The highly contentious matter, opposed by Mayor Sylvester Turner, is the latest salvo in a series of legal and political battles between firefighters and city officials.
Firefighters say they’re paid far less than Houston police officers and firefighters in other cities. After contract negotiations between the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and City Hall broke down last year, the firefighters union filed a lawsuit that sought to settle the impasse.
But firefighters last year also collected signatures from residents hoping to put a measure on the November 2017 ballot that could have raised their pay. Months went by without the city secretary’s office verifying that the association had collected enough signatures to force an election, so the firefighters association sued over that matter. After the association successfully got a court order forcing the city secretary’s office to count the signatures, city leaders put the matter on Tuesday’s ballot.
Debates over the issue, which is on the ballot as Proposition B, have centered on firefighters’ contention that their high-risk jobs warrant financial backing from the taxpayers whose lives and properties they protect and Turner’s claims that the measure’s cost would lead to layoffs and cuts to city services. Turner also said that wording in the proposition could end up forcing the city to pay firefighters more than police officers.
The city controller estimates that if the measure passes, it will create a $100 million annual shortfall in Houston’s budget. Turner admits that firefighters need raises, but opposes such an immediate, expensive bump. The ongoing tension pits the mayor against a group of people who campaigned for him in 2015.
“Yes I appreciate what the firefighters did,” Turner said at a Houston debate on the matter last month. “But if you ask me to do something that will bankrupt the city of Houston, my answer to you must be, ‘no.’”
Firefighters, though, say Turner is using scare tactics to sway voters. They also say any potential budget holes created by addressing their low pay is a mess of the mayor’s own making.
“If he was truly concerned, why hasn’t he tried to work out a solution with the firefighters?” the association's president, Marty Lancton, said in an interview with The Texas Tribune last week.
Lancton said if the measure passes, the firefighters and city could still work out a new contract with a different pay scale that, thanks to state law, could supersede the proposition. The city controller’s office hopes that’s the route that the firefighters and City Hall take.
But if the measure passes, more legal wrangling could arise. The City Council this week will consider hiring a law firm to “review and assess” all legal options if Proposition B is successful.
“It is a prudent course of action,” said Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for the mayor.
San Antonio residents could tighten the reins on City Hall
In San Antonio, firefighters worked to add three propositions to the ballot, though only one explicitly has to do with the first responders. The city’s Proposition A would decrease the number of signatures required to call a referendum and allow for referenda on several financial decisions the City Council makes.
With Proposition B, voters could change how the city manager is hired and paid — and how long they serve. That measure would require approval from a super majority of the San Antonio City Council to hire a city manager. It would also limit the manager’s term to eight years and cap their pay at 10 times the amount of the lowest-paid full-time city employee.
Meanwhile, the city’s Proposition C would allow the firefighters union to unilaterally force City Hall into binding arbitration over any contract disputes.
Several city officials, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg, and a group called Go Vote No oppose all three measures.
Housing affordability, land-use rules also on the Austin ballot
In Austin, voters will weigh in on a $925 million bond package, which includes $250 million for affordable housing initiatives. Residents in that city, like several across Texas, are finding it increasingly difficult to find an affordable home. Gentrification is creating new homes for more affluent residents, but displacing low-income residents.
Another proposition in Austin would require that voters approve any future comprehensive rewrites of the city’s land development code. City leaders earlier this year scrapped an attempt at rewriting such regulations. The city spent years and millions of dollars on what was called CodeNEXT, which sought to improve transportation and create more affordable housing.
Another Austin proposition would require an outside study of City Hall’s financial and operational efficiencies.
The mayor’s seat and five other Austin City Council spots are also on the ballot.
City Council races and a mental health bond package elsewhere in Texas
El Paso voters will decide four city council races. And some Dallas residents will have the rare chance to pick a city council member in November. Thirteen people are running for the Dallas council seat vacated by Dwaine Caraway, who pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges earlier this year. He has yet to be sentenced.
In Tarrant County, voters will decide whether to approve the largest bond package in county history. The $800 million proposal is earmarked for the county’s public hospital system. It would fund the expansion of mental health services and triple the number of psychiatric beds.