War of words at Houston city council over Prop B

Some contentious moments at Houston’s city council meeting Wednesday as council members contend with a $260 million budget shortfall for the next year.

Houston City Council members are growing frustrated that it is taking so long to release a plan to pay for Proposition B, which requires pay parity between police and firefighters. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he is working on finding the money while working on the budget, but there are a lot of variables. Council members are frustrated that they know so little about his process. They have put forth twenty proposals to help make the numbers work.

“It’s not like I’ve said no to your ideas,” said Turner during a council meeting on Wednesday. “I’m waiting to see to what degree you will all come around to support your ideas and we’ll see.”

“And that’s why, Mayor, what I’m asking is what are the administration’s ideas?,” asked City Council member Greg Travis. “That’s what I’m asking. You got ours. I just don’t know yours.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen any specifics, so I’m hoping we have the opportunity to look at specifics on particular items…”

“If there are going to be any layoffs in question, I will tell you, we have identified who those layoffs will apply [sic],” Turner said during the meeting. “That list has been put together.”

After the meeting, when questioned, Turner said there was no such list.

“Let me correct myself, as we finalize the process and the system and you put a cost on that, then you determine what we can afford, what we can’t and how we then balance the budget.”

Turner was tough to pin down on where negotiations stand. At one point Wednesday he said his administration has had meetings and conversations with the Firefighters Association about implementation. When pushed Turner clarified saying there have been no meetings, only “conversations” and admitted no proposals have been offered to the association representing firefighters.

The Houston Professional Firefighters Union says there have been no substantive conversations outside of the ongoing lawsuits between the union and city and none have been scheduled.

Turner claims there is a meeting scheduled, though when asked, he wouldn’t give a date, only saying it would happen “soon.”

Houston city council members have also issued a 20-point memo to Turner, which points out ways to pay for the implementation the Proposition.

The memo ranges from layoffs to privatizing garbage to EMS services.

Wednesday city controller Chris Brown paired the list with the city consultant’s list.

The consultant’s list offered nearly 60 cost-cutting measures. That report, which cost the city $565,000, has a number of suggestions that could streamline city operations Brown said.

The Prop B and finance discussion took up two-thirds of the meeting and became contentious at times between Turner and the council.

Several council members asked Turner for more inclusion in the budget process and more planning time to better understand where the city’s money will go.

“I’m hoping we have the opportunity to look at specifics on particular items as we move through the spring so we’re not just handed a budget on May the first and told ‘We want you to pass this on May 15,” council member Mike Laster said.

“Council member, it’s the same timeline as the last three years,” Turner said.

“There wasn’t much conversation,” Laster said. “There wasn’t.”

Council member Dwight Boykins compared Turner to a dictator for making council members beg for budget information. The accusations led to a heated verbal exchange.

“We shouldn’t have to be begging for financial information,” Boykins, said. “Don’t treat us like children.”

Turner snapped back at some of the council members, who said he was disrespecting them. Once, Turner seemed upset because Boykins didn’t call him “Mayor” Turner.

“I respect Sylvester Turner,” Boykins said.

“I’m the mayor,” Turner rebutted. “My name is—“

“The mayor,” Boykins interjected.

“Thank you,” Turner said. “And you’re really pushing it. So be careful.”

“What can you do to me, Mayor?”

The decisions will be made over the coming weeks and months as the city prepares itself for the next fiscal year, which starts in July. The projected budget deficit is $260 million dollars, including $100 million for the Prop B implementation.