HOUSTON -- The Houston Firefighter’s Union has resoundingly rejected a deal that would’ve put an end to those controversial brownouts. The impasse may also end up costing homeowners hundreds of dollars a year in larger insurance premiums.
Tuesday’s stunning 93-percent vote against the contract did leave Houston’s long battling Mayor and Firefighters Union agreeing on one thing.
“They didn’t like the contract at all," said Mayor Annise Parker.
“This deal is not acceptable (to the rank and file)," said Houston Professional FireFighters Association President Bryan Sky-Eagle.
The main clause was a 4-percent pay raise in exchange for strict caps on unscheduled leave. In the past, that unscheduled leave cost the city $8.5 million in unexpected overtime. To pay for that, the mayor implemented brownouts, idling emergency and fire vehicles.
“What was significant about this contract was it was net neutral to the budget we were trying to pass," said Parker.
Firefighters though felt that 'net neutral' meant -in effect- they would pay for their own raise and that raise was too little too late.
“The cost of living is far surpassing firefighters’ salary and then you cut their benefit time so they can’t work side jobs, so they can’t supplement their income to take care of their families so this is a perfect storm for firefighters," said Sky-Eagle.
On top of it all, Wednesday the Houston City Council votes on next year's budget. Roughly 20-percent of it or $507 million was the value of the now defunct firefighter's contract.
How does the city go forward with the budget?
“Well, we have a budget that is expected to fully fund the fire department,” said Parker.
The city may go forward using those numbers even without an approved deal.
As for those cost cutting brown outs?
“They are active and they are ongoing,” said Sky-Eagle.
Some critics fear if those brownouts continue, fire and paramedic protection will go down as will HFD's Insurance Service Organization or I.S.O. rating. A lower rating may mean higher even doubled insurance premiums. Parker denied that would happen.
“We have yet to find a major insurer in Texas that bases its premiums primarily on an I.S.O. rating,” said Parker.
The current contract ends June 30 but has an evergreen clause. It basically rolls over till the end of 2016, leaving plenty of time for another contract deal. In the meantime to balance the budget, the mayor says as a practical matter there are really 2 options: Reducing firefighters from a 4 to a 3 shift system, which reduces overtime and/or continuing those brownouts.