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Ruling for firefighters could cost city taxpayers millions

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    HOUSTON (KTRK) — Judges with the Texas Court of Appeals sided with Houston firefighters in a decision that could cost city taxpayers millions.

In a long-running battle over Houston firefighters’ salaries, the city of Houston tried to have their collective bargaining rights declared unconstitutional. It would have been a blow to both the firefighters and all unionized employees in Texas.

In a decision announced Thursday morning, the 14th Court of Appeals told the city no.

While the ruling upholds union bargaining rights, the larger and more immediate effect is that a judge will now set wages for Houston firefighters all the way back to 2017. Texas law permits that when unions and cities can’t agree on a contract. In this case, it would affect not only 2017 wages, but every year since then.

Based on salaries when the case was filed, every 1% increase would be more than $3.25 million per year in back wages alone. Firefighters were seeking far more than just 1%. A union expert suggested Houston firefighters could be as much as 50% underpaid which would be $162.5 million for one year alone. Thursday’s decision could affect four years of back pay.

In a statement, HPFFA President Marty Lancton said, “We are grateful for this ruling. It should be a signal for the mayor to end the vindictive, taxpayer-funded legal campaign against Houston firefighters and our families. This ruling provides the city with an opportunity to reverse course and resolve our disputes.”

No new negotiations are scheduled, neither is a date to resume the wage trial. Instead, the city is considering an appeal.

“The city respectfully disagrees with today’s opinion that lets a trial court decide pay and benefits under a comparable pay standard never negotiated between the parties,” Attorney Arturo Michel with the city of Houston told ABC13 in a statement. “The city is evaluating its options, and will decide in due time whether to ask the Texas Supreme Court to address this matter or present evidence to the trial court in support of just, fair, and affordable compensation to Houston’s Firefighters. The city has continually been, and remains, committed to negotiating in good faith with the Union.”

A ruling on Prop B, the ballot measure that would raise firefighter salaries in line with police salaries, is still pending in front of the same court. A ruling in that case could come at any time.

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