HOUSTON – Firefighters in Houston got the more than 32,000 signatures needed on a petition of people who supported to place before voters in November a ballot requesting parity in pay between themselves and police officers, which could jeopardize city plans to reform pensions, city officials said.

The petition drive for signatures started earlier in July followed by a failure of firefighting union officials to come to a contract agreement with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. Firefighters accused the mayor of failing to negotiate in good faith. They were delivered July 17.

The union had sought a 21 percent pay increase to be phased in over three years and then settled for 17 percent. However, the city offered 9.5 percent and contract negotiations stalled.

Houston firefighters have been without a contract for three years. The former contract governing the system became void last month, requiring state and local ordinances to take over.

Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association, described the settlement negotiations as being at the “breaking point” in a Houston Chronicle article, and added that firefighters need the help of voters because the city refuses to.

The petition would seek to change a city charter to mandate equal pay between firefighters and police officers of similar importance. The pay of firefighters is reportedly 13 to 23 percent below that of police officers of equal rank, according to a Houston Chronicle article.

However, Turner was quoted by the Houston Chronicle saying the proposed wage parity would cost the city $40 million, require further city employee layoffs, and delay the purchase of vitally needed equipment and upgrades such as building maintenance.

State law requires at least 20,000 signatures to place an issue on the November ballot before voters for proposed amendments to city charters.

The firefighters pension board earlier sued the city over an attempt to reform city employee pensions by selling $1 million in bonds, a move that had been approved by the Texas State Legislature last May. 

The bonds would go towards augmenting city police and municipal employee pension funds in exchange for $1.8 billion in benefits cuts, aimed at erasing an estimated $8 billion in debt over the next 30 years.

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