Friday, December 14, 2018

Sylvester Turner's leadership crisis

The reason people like Boykins (and Buzbee) keep stepping up with suggestions to resolve the dispute between the city and the firefighters is because there is a paralysis of leadership in the mayor's office.

Houston City Councilman Dwight Boykins on Thursday proposed charging property owners a monthly garbage collection fee to finance raises for firefighters while avoiding job cuts for other city staff.

Under the proposal, most Houston homeowners would be charged a flat, monthly fee between $25 and $40 to help the city absorb the cost of raises for firefighters mandated by the pay parity charter amendment approved by voters last month.

Unveiled at a Thursday press conference, Boykins' proposal comes amid a legal challenge by the city over the constitutionality of Proposition B, the charter amendment granting firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding rank and experience. The amendment was approved last month by 59 percent of voters.

"I believe the issue of pay parity was settled at the ballot box," Boykins wrote in a Thursday letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner and his colleagues on council. "As elected leaders, our primary mission is to settle on an appropriate and responsible way forward. To this end, I am convinced that introducing a garbage collection fee is the most plausible plan to provide firefighters a pay raise while ensuring that no city worker loses their job."

Mayor Turner turned this down flat, as he has in the past.  He is simply too terrified to raise a tax or a fee in an election year.  He used "fiscal conservative" language to dog-whistle to the moderate Republicans that he will need to be re-elected that he stands by their side.

Turner’s office issued a statement in which the mayor said he was opposed to the idea: “Council Member Boykins and the Firefighters Association's proposal to enact a $25 monthly garbage collection fee to pay for a firefighter’s 29% pay raise, underscores what I have been saying for months. The City cannot afford Proposition B. This measure will cost the city more than $100 million each fiscal year. I will not support forcing Houston homeowners to pay a costly new tax on trash collection to pay for firefighters’ salaries.”

So the city -- in cahoots with the police officers' union, which has inserted itself into the dispute against the firefighters, buying the mayor's bluff/threat of layoffs -- will keep litigating, in the hopes that their lawyers might eventually get them a favorable legal ruling where the court of public opinion and referendum has failed them.

In response to a lawsuit by the Houston Police Officers Union, which opposed the parity amendment, a state district judge earlier this month issued a temporary restraining order blocking implementation of the measure. A hearing is scheduled for (today).

Here's more on the details of CM Boykin's proposal, and some history.

Boykins estimated the proposed fee could raise $107 million to $172 million annually. Disabled veterans would be exempted from the fee and senior citizens would pay a to-be-determined discounted rate, he said.


He said trash collection could occur twice a week if city council adopted a $30 monthly fee; a $40 fee would allow heavy trash pickup twice a month.

Houston is the only big Texas city without a garbage fee. Austin charges a monthly garbage fee of between $25 and $50, San Antonio charges roughly $20, Dallas charges $27 and Fort Worth charges between $12.50 and $23.


It’s not the first time local officials have eyed — or killed — garbage fees: Turner shot down the idea in 2016, when it was suggested as a way to offset a new contract with trash haulers. Boykins floated the idea at an October council meeting, and previously has suggested a garbage fee as a way to raise money that would not count against a voter-imposed revenue cap.

Former Mayor Annise Parker also floated a garbage fee in 2014 to plug a budget deficit, an idea that was shot down by the city council.

The longer this drags out, the greater the ill will between the parties grows.

I thought it was bad enough months ago that Turner, a Democrat, chose to bully a Democratic constituency, a civil workers union, with Republican strong-arm tactics.  He's also enabled conservatives to rally behind the firefighters and form an organized opposition to him, a pretty stupid thing to let happen.  And in what may have been from the unintended consequences department, the dispute has exasperated a simmering animosity between police officers and firefighters and the lack of respect each appears to have for the others' job.  In short, the vitriol has reached toxic levels.  Perhaps the judge will recommend binding arbitration for the two parties at today's hearing (and the mayor's attorneys won't decide to challenge that with another lawsuit).

Speaking of third parties, someone ought to be polling Houstonians regarding Boykins' proposed garbage fee increase.  Because if the city or the firefighters have some of their cronies doing it, we'll just get spin.  Not that more public opinion against him seems to influence this mayor.

In the meantime, Sylvester Turner needs to focus on this and not on HISD.  This is his real challenge for 2019; why he chose to meddle in the school issues demonstrates, on its best day, a political attention deficit disorder on the part of the mayor.  You would think he had staff smart enough to advise him of this.

Fresh ideas -- and perhaps fresh leadership downtown around the horseshoe on Bagby -- appear to be more greatly needed with each passing day.

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