Houston Firefighters' Contract Close to Finish Line

Feb. 29, 2024
Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Patrick M. "Marty" Lancton said the fine-tuning is underway.

Feb. 28—The city of Houston and its firefighters are nearing an agreement to resolve their bitter, years-long pay dispute, with specifics expected to take additional weeks or months to finalize, according to city and union officials.

The city typically renegotiates contracts with the firefighters union every few years, but the two parties were unable to reach an agreement in 2017, leading to an ongoing legal battle and leaving the firefighters without a contract ever since.

Mayor John Whitmire's administration previously set an end-of-February deadline to resolve all aspects of the dispute and outline a plan to finance the substantial payments. While both sides expressed satisfaction with the progress of the negotiations, Whitmire acknowledged the city is unlikely to meet this target.

"The negotiations are complicated and ongoing," Whitmire said. "We are taking additional time to gather the necessary information and reach a successful conclusion: the best outcome for the City of Houston and our firefighters."

Still, both City Attorney Arturo Michel and firefighters union president Marty Lancton told the Chronicle they are hopeful they can finalize basic terms in the coming days, possibly at their next meeting on Friday afternoon.

These terms will cover the total back pay the city will pay to firefighters split into broad categories such as base pay, special pay and interest. They will also likely touch on their future contracts for the next three years, according to Michel. However, developing the agreement to the extent that firefighters of various classifications know their exact compensation may take two to three more months, he said.

"It was a pretty ambitious goal to start with, and we've been operating like we're trying to meet that," Michel said. "But I just think practically, we can't have everything wrapped up at the end of February."

Whitmire has kept close ties to the firefighters during his lengthy political career and promised to put an end to the city's prolonged legal battle with the union during his mayoral campaign last year. He dropped an appeal to a recent judge order immediately after taking office, and attorneys for the two sides have met regularly since then.

Lancton said both parties have approached the negotiations with a sense of urgency, noting that the remaining tasks primarily involve fine-tuning the details into their final form.

"We're almost there. I fully expect that we will be agreeable on the terms," Lancton said. "The last administration left an absolute mess, and we have to make sure that we are being thorough and thoughtful. But if we have an agreement on the terms, then it's just the mechanics of the agreement that have to be honed."

The Greater Houston Partnership recently estimated the back pay owed to firefighters could cost the city between $500 million and $600 million. Michel said covering these costs would likely involve a mix of general fund dollars and debt issuance. He added that depending on the bond type, its issuance may require approval from a judge or a referendum from voters.

A trial date is currently set for March 25 to address the contract impasse from 2017. Both parties expressed their hope to further refine their agreement before then.

"I think the parties' interest is, as long as we're talking in good faith, let's not go to trial and push the date back. But if we can't get this resolved, let's put it back on the earliest possible opportunity," Michel said.


(c)2024 the Houston Chronicle

Visit the Houston Chronicle at www.chron.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!