HOUSTON -- Houston’s fire chief faced a skeptical cadre of council members reviewing his $507 million budget for the next fiscal year, with many of them openly questioning whether staff shortages will force HFD to continue parking unmanned emergency vehicles in their stations during so-called service brownouts.
Some critics -- including C.O. Bradford, a councilmember who once headed Houston’s police department – flatly predicted the brownouts will roll into the next fiscal year.
Although he stopped short of offering any guarantees, HFD Chief Terry Garrison predicted the roughly 300 cadets expected to graduate from the fire department’s academy in the next fiscal year will resolve the staffing problems that led to the brownouts.
“We’ve done the best we can -- looking at the numbers, working with our staffing models for the last couple years, anticipating the pre-scheduled leave and unscheduled leave -- but it’s a guesstimate,” Garrison said.
HFD had covered the staffing shortages by paying firefighters overtime to cover extra shifts, but the department burned through its overtime budget seven months into the fiscal year. (Houston’s city government operates on a fiscal year that begins on July 1 and ends on June 30 of the following calendar year.) After the mayor and council members balked at boosting HFD’s overtime budget, the fire chief reluctantly adopted the brownout plan.
“And I said early on that people are going to suffer longer and houses are going to burn longer,” Garrison said.
So some council members were surprised to discover the mayor’s proposed spending plan keeps HFD’s overtime budget roughly the same. (Actually, the $25.2 million earmarked for overtime is about $200,000 less than the estimate for the current year.)
“It simply should have been addressed that the fire department is understaffed,” Bradford said. “And you’re going to have to solve the problem by introducing new firefighters or overtime dollars. And they are reducing the overtime dollars. So I am concerned about that.”
Council members also reiterated ongoing concerns about the city’s growing firefighter pension expenses. About 18 percent of HFD’s budget for the next fiscal year – $91.2 million – is dedicated to the firefighter pension fund, an increase of 45 percent in a single year.