A judge on Tuesday denied the Houston firefighter union’s request to block the city from removing personnel, trucks and ambulances from service to balance the fire department budget.
State District Judge Elaine Palmer denied the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association’s request for a temporary restraining order.
The hearing was the first in a lawsuit the union filed Tuesday against the city’s so-called “rolling brownout” plan. A follow-up hearing is scheduled for March 7.
Fire union president Bryan Sky-Eagle said he was disappointed in the denial, saying he filed the order “as a preemptive strike” to protect people and firefighters. Safety is the purpose of the union’s collective bargaining agreement with the city, which provides the basis for the legal action, Sky-Eagle said, arguing that the brownouts undermine the agreement’s purpose.
“Once you start unilaterally making those changes, whatever the motivation may be – budgetary or political or otherwise – you start losing the intent,” Sky-Eagle said before the hearing.
City Attorney David Feldman called the lawsuit “novel,” and said what units are placed in service at what times is a management decision that is the city’s right to make. Feldman argued the lawsuit stems from the ongoing collective bargaining talks with the union, not the brownouts.
“These issues need to be discussed at the bargaining table,” Feldman said, “not at the courthouse.”
Feldman also disputed the claim that the planned brownouts will compromise public safety, an argument fire union attorney Michelle Bohreer rejected.
“That is absolutely contrary to Fire Chief (Terry) Garrison’s statement to council just last week,” she said.
HFD is on pace to exceed its $447 million budget by $10.5 million in the fiscal year that ends June 30. Most of that, $8.5 million, is due to overtime paid to firefighters to cover a staffing shortage exacerbated by a union contract that leaves Garrison unable to effectively restrict when firefighters take time off.
The first cuts came when seven ambulances were removed from service Saturday morning.