A portion of the $615 million in federal funds earmarked for Houston’s COVID-19 recovery could go towards an additional police cadet class and to pay increases for firefighters, Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Friday.
The mayor said he would add a sixth HPD cadet class in next year’s budget to help address a “significant uptick in violence” throughout Houston, while investing in communities to address things like illegal dumping sites in some of Houston’s poorest districts.
He added that he intended to propose the firefighter raise “with or without” input from the Houston fire union.
“Along with the investment in many of these complete communities, along with dealing with this crime wave that’s taking place, firefighters are deserving of a pay raise and that’s a high priority of mine,” he said.
It was not immediately clear how much money would be allocated to either firefighter pay or more policing in the latest round of federal relief.
The new funding fills what would have been a massive gap due to COVID-19. About half of the $615 million windfall would be available for 2021, with the other half coming in 2022, according to city officials. The city has also pledged to use the money on COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.
The move to raise Houston firefighter pay comes after years of political battles between the mayor and the fire union. In 2018, Houston voters approved a ballot measure that would have tied firefighter compensation to police pay. A judge later ruled the proposition unconstitutional.
Houston firefighters have received a pay raise of just 3% since 2011, according to the Houston Chronicle. The Houston Professional Firefighters’ Association told the paper that, rather than insinuating a pay raise without union input, Turner should come to the negotiating table.
Policing, meanwhile, has been a major priority during Turner’s tenure as mayor. In the past year alone Houston City Council has approved a roughly $1 billion budget for the police, while also using a previous round of federal relief funding in October to pay for more police overtime — a move he also justified by pointing to a jump in violent crime during the pandemic.
Outgoing Police Chief Art Acevedo has long praised Turner’s support for the police, while being critical of those calling to defund the department.
In an email sent to officers Sunday night, Acevedo told his staff they would “continue to serve with the strong support of Mayor Turner, and his council colleagues.”
But Turner has also been roundly criticized by activists and community organizers who argue the money given to police could be going to social programs.
Houston is under a tax revenue cap passed by voters in 2004, which limits the annual growth in property taxes that the city can collect. That’s led organizers to push for funding to be diverted from policing to other resources.
Last June, during 2021 budget negotiations, Houston City Council heard more than two hours of public testimony on the police budget. Much of that testimony came from members of the public who were critical of giving more money to HPD, amid calls for defunding the police that gained popularity across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.
Instead, council members voted unanimously on a $5.1 billion budget that raised police funding to $964 million.
Katya Abazajian, an organizer with the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, criticized the move to add more resources to policing when other social programs are in need.
Rather than reduce harm in communities impacted by crime, policing will do more damage, Abazajian said.
“It’s pretty obvious that Turner doesn’t intend to actually address issues of policing in Houston, he’s just going to continue to bolster their budget,” Abazajian said. “It speaks to a pretty gross disregard of what the community has expressed that they actually want and need. And is also pretty ignorant of the strides that other cities in Texas have made around defunding like Austin, who have proven that this kind of reform is possible.”
Abazajian, who is also part of the Houston DSA’s abolitionist working group and a member of the Houston Abolitionist Collective, is one of the people advocating for taking the money used for policing and instead investing it in things like education, mental health care, flood protection and housing.
Turner has argued that money for both police and other services are not mutually exclusive, and that “underfunded and underresourced” communities in Houston have pushed for more policing, not less.
“He’s made his personal beliefs very clear on record and kind of said that defunding is not a priority for him, that it’s not going to happen, and that he doesn’t believe that that’s what the community actually wants,” Abazajian said. “He continues to say that there’s some kind of silent majority out there that actually does believe in the police, but hasn’t been able to really show receipts for that.”
Ashton Woods, founder of Black Lives Matter Houston, echoed that sentiment, and pointed to the ongoing eviction crisis in Houston as evidence that the money should be going elsewhere.
He also suggested that, in the wake of a winter storm that left millions without water due to burst pipes — and one year after a massive water main break — there were more pressing infrastructure needs.
“We’re talking about the fact that there are large swaths of the city that literally do not have sidewalks or proper drainage,” Woods said. “There are areas that I could walk through in Sunnyside right now, and South Acres, and various different areas where where I am in District K, and you can see that there are no fire hydrants. There are no stop signs, there are no stoplights, people speed through these neighborhoods. There’s a lot of things that we could address.”
Woods added that he did not believe the mayor had any data to suggest giving more federal money to HPD would reduce crime.
“The people don’t want more police,” Woods said. “I think what people are looking for is the ability to just live, to have a reliable transit system, to be able to go to a job that pays them enough to be able to pay their rent instead of having two or three jobs.”