City controller withholds certification of contract with firefighter

It appears unlikely that the proposed $1.5 billion settlement and labor agreement with the Houston firefighters union will be approved in time for Wednesday’s scheduled City Council vote because of a long list of questions that Comptroller Chris Hollins sent to Mayor John No response was provided to Whitmire regarding the contract.

On Monday, Hollins sent the mayor 44 questions, giving the administration a short deadline to provide answers before Wednesday morning’s council meeting. The questions range from basic information about the estimated cost of the deal to the city, as well as more complicated details, including specific triggers for firefighter bonuses that he believes were not included in the draft his office received last week.

The city charter requires the administrator to certify the availability of funds for an ordinance before council votes to impose future financial obligations on the city. Hollins said he would not approve the deal without answers to each of 44 questions, which his office had not received as of Tuesday afternoon.

“My job is to provide complete transparency, and that includes answering these questions,” Hollins said Tuesday afternoon. “I wouldn’t be doing my job if we let this matter go without getting our questions answered.”

Whitmire spokeswoman Mary Benton said the mayor’s office worked throughout Tuesday to respond to Hollins’ questions.

Whitmire, who ran for mayor last year on a promise to end a dispute over firefighter back wages, announced the agreement in March. Since then, details about the settlement and collective bargaining agreement have been sparse before the 123-page CBA was signed and published on June 3.

Hollins said his office worked as quickly as possible to review the terms and prepare questions the week the details became public.

Frustration over the lack of certification spilled over into Tuesday’s City Council public meeting, where Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association, accused Hollins of playing politics over the contract.

Lancton claimed that Hollins received the draft contract several months ago and had the opportunity to review the contract.

“We have seen that some questions have been submitted that are a bit concerning and have nothing to do with fund certification,” Lancton said, suggesting politics were at play.

Hollins said Lancton’s comments were not true and that his office only received a draft of the completed agreement last Monday. A preliminary draft of the agreement had been circulating previously, but the city attorney’s office said some provisions were still being drafted before last week.

“We have asked the right questions and now we are waiting for the answer,” Hollins said. “I would like to understand which of these questions Marty feels the Comptroller’s Office and the people of Houston should not have answered?”

The estimated cost of the deal is $1.5 billion, including interest and bond fees to be used to settle the arrears and the cost of a forward-looking, five-year union contract.

In his letter, Hollins asks Whitmire to confirm the $650 million in back pay settlement, legal bill costs, and the number of firefighters eligible for back pay. He also seeks additional clarity about the negotiations that led to the settlement, asking Whitmire how many concessions the city and firefighters union offered before the two sides reached an agreement.

According to Hollins, CBA does not have detailed information on the “staircase” or funding criteria that, if met, could result in pay increases for union members. Hollins said the lack of details on the types of new revenue that would trigger the increases could lead to further disputes between the city and the union in the future.

Hollins urged Whitmire to provide details about or negotiate trigger terms before the council ratified the deal.

Hollins is also asking Whitmire for clarification on certain non-financial terms of the CBA, including changes to the Civil Service Commission’s bylaws that would allow the firefighters union to elect half of board members and a requirement that any termination achieve a unanimous vote by board members. This change would effectively give firefighters veto power over major disciplines.

The five-year contract includes a 10 percent increase in base salary for the first year. Base salaries will continue to increase over the next four years, but the total increase will depend on the city’s ability to raise new revenue.

If the city actually increases revenues, the wage escalator will be activated. For example, in the first year, a 3% salary increase will increase to 6% if more money comes in. Hollins wants clarity on what new revenue the increases will result in.

Following Lancton’s remarks during Tuesday’s City Council public comment session, Whitmire thanked the council’s Finance Committee for its work in reviewing the contract, arguing that the committee process had already answered any outstanding questions the public may have had.

A vote on the agreement has already been delayed for a week after Hollins failed to confirm it in time at Wednesday’s meeting.

Also last week, At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn “tagged” the city’s proposed fiscal year 2025 budget at $6.7 billion, automatically delaying the budget vote until Wednesday.

As a result of these moves, Whitmire wants to approve his first budget and ratify the contract with the firefighters by calling an all-important council meeting.

A group of council members questioned both the cost of the deal – it would exhaust most of the more than $450 million in balance left from the previous administration – and the same non-financial changes Hollins asked Whitmire about.

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