HOUSTON (AP) — A judge on Tuesday lifted a court order blocking the implementation of a new charter amendment that would give Houston’s firefighters pay parity with city police officers, but the mayor says the raise would cost the city up to $100 million and result in hundreds of layoffs.
The measure, which calls for firefighters and police officers of similar rank or status to be paid equally, was approved by Houston voters last month.
The firefighters’ union says its members have had only a 3 percent pay raise since 2011 and they are woefully underpaid compared with Houston police and other fire departments across the country. Houston police officers got a 7 percent pay raise in October.
Tuesday’s ruling is in connection with a lawsuit that Houston’s police officers’ union filed against the firefighters’ union and the city to stop the amendment from being put into action. The police officers’ union claimed the amendment is inconsistent with state law and is unconstitutionally vague.
The city, while a defendant in the lawsuit, also sought to stop the amendment.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who had urged voters not to approve the ballot measure that resulted in the charter amendment, said the ruling means the city will begin the process of implementing the measure and that it will trigger layoffs.
“I ask Houstonians to bear with us as we work through this process while the legal matters are still being resolved,” Turner said in a statement.
Turner has previously said the measure could cost millions of dollars and that it would result in hundreds of city workers, including first responders, being laid off, as well as cuts in city services.
State District Judge Randy Wilson denied requests by the police officers’ union and the city to halt the amendment’s implementation while the lawsuit proceeds in court and also ended a court order that temporarily blocked it.
In his ruling, Wilson said the amendment is not contrary to the state law that allows municipalities to engage in collective bargaining with firefighters and police officers.
“While this court is sensitive to the budget difficulties the Pay-Parity Amendment will produce, the Houston voters decided they would rather have pay parity,” Wilson said.
Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, said the ruling confirms the union’s belief that the measure is constitutional.
“The question now is will the mayor continue to defy the will of voters and continue to punish firefighters and their families?” he said.
Lancton called on Turner to either implement the pay parity amendment or reach out to the firefighters’ union to discuss how the measure can be put into action “in the best possible way.”
Turner has said firefighters would need a 29 percent pay hike to bring them in line with police officers, something the city can’t afford to do.
The city had most recently offered firefighters a 9.5 percent pay raise that was rejected, said the mayor, who has had a contentious relationship with the firefighters’ union in recent years.
At a court hearing last week on the lawsuit, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo testified that if the pay parity amendment goes through, he would have to shut down the police academy and lay off 500 to 800 officers.
“We have done everything in our power to stop the catastrophic effects of (the amendment). Fire union leaders have said the mayor is only bluffing and layoffs are a scare tactic. We shall see,” the police officers’ union said in a statement.
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