Council OKs deal to avoid ‘brownouts’

Mar. 12, 2014Houston Chronicle

City Council on Wednesday joined Houston’s firefighters union in approving a deal both sides hope will prevent fire trucks from being idled as a result of the fire department’s budget struggles.

The unanimous council vote will give each firefighter a 2 percent raise retroactive to March 1, and a roughly $975 lump-sum payment in July, intended as a uniform allowance. In exchange, firefighters’ ability to schedule days off is greatly restricted through June 30, the end of the fiscal year, as part of a series of changes aimed at controlling overtime costs.

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 members ratified the agreement last week, with 65 percent of the vote.

HFD is on pace to exceed its $447 million budget by $10.5 million, about $8.5 million of which is overtime paid to firefighters during a staffing shortage exacerbated by a union contract that left Fire Chief Terry Garrison unable to effectively restrict when firefighters take time off.

“We’re happy to say the brownouts will stop or will be mitigated down to a level that’s manageable. The firemen have really stepped up and deferred a lot of benefits that they’ve earned,” fire union president Bryan Sky-Eagle said, adding some also have moved scheduled vacations.

Officials said all trucks will remain in service as long as there are, on average, fewer than 35 unexpected absences – such as sick days and emergency leave – per day. HFD averaged 35.9 unscheduled absences per day during the first 10 days of March and 40 per day in February.

“It really depends on a lot of individual firefighters making decisions that help the whole city,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “If the overtime begins to spike we will, of necessity, park fire apparatus. … We think we’re on the right track.”

Apart from the interim deal finalized Wednesday, fire union and city officials are negotiating on a new long-term contract.

In other action Wednesday, City Council:

& delayed consideration of a proposed tax break that would reward developers for redeveloping blighted buildings;

& approved $2.7 million in design costs for a joint Houston-Harris County inmate processing center. The center, approved by county voters last November, has been discussed for decades. It will allow the city to close its aging jail, and, officials hope, provide greater efficiency and improve social service outreach to offenders.

& named interim Planning and Development Department Director Patrick Walsh to the post permanently. Walsh, an engineer and a native Houstonian, joined the city last November from the city of Sugar Land.

Developers’ tax break delayed

In other action Wednesday, City Council:

1 Delayed consideration of a proposed tax break that would reward developers for redeveloping blighted buildings;

1 Approved $2.7 million in design costs for a joint Houston-Harris County inmate processing center. The center has been discussed for decades. It will allow the city to close its aging jail, and, officials hope, provide greater efficiency and improve social service outreach to offenders.

1 Named interim Planning and Development Department Director Patrick Walsh to the post permanently. Walsh, an engineer and a native Houstonian, joined the city last November from Sugar Land.