Fire department payouts strain Houston budget

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Associated Press

Posted on February 24, 2014 at 8:02 AM

HOUSTON (AP) — Houston city payroll records show almost 200 fire department employees over the past six years have collected checks of more than $100,000 when they retired or quit.

The financial windfall known as termination pay includes payment for leave time not taken over the years.

State law allows firefighters in Houston and other large cities to accumulate their leave and collect the lump-sum payment.

But the disclosure Sunday from the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1bZa0D4) comes as Houston is suing the firefighter's pension fund to try to get negotiating power over future contributions. Some departments, including Dallas and Austin, pay less because of caps they have negotiated.

Houston officials also want to address a projected $8.5 million in unexpected fire department overtime.

Firefighter union officials say the practice has saved the city overtime costs of replacing sick or absent firefighters. But critics say the policy could lead to a financial crisis if retirement-eligible employees do so and collect big checks for unused leave.

Steven Sparks retired last year as a district chief after 39 years with the department and received $177,000 in in termination pay.

"Six mornings I called and told them I can't come to work because I'm too sick to work. I did that six times in 39 years," Sparks, 59, said. "I came to work (sick) because of the work ethic I grew up with."

Sparks is one of 928 department employees who have collected more than $57 million from 2008 through last year.

Department employees can accrue 90 days of vacation, eight days of sick leave a year that is matched by the city and an unlimited number of holidays. Those who were on the job before September 1985 can choose to accrue an unlimited amount of sick leave at a rate of 15 days a year.

The overall practice long has been part of the city's labor agreement with the fire department employees, Mayor Annise Parker said.

"Clearly, it is a budgetary strain," she said.

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com

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