HOUSTON (FOX 26) – Facing a financial crunch because of voter approved pay-parity for its firefighters, the City of Houston is supposed to be in a “hiring freeze.”
But according to payroll records and multiple sources, the “freeze” down at City Hall has clearly thawed.
The reported halt-in-hiring was triggered by a ballot referendum last November, which the firefighters won and the Mayor lost, despite alarming projections of dire economic consequences including up to a 1,000 firefighter layoffs and as many as 800 police officers pulled off the payroll.
“If you add $100 million to my bottom line, the only way you can balance the books, you must layoff and in this case, police officers, firefighters, municipal workers and a disruption of City services,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner in a debate with Firefighter Union Chief last October.
The City “hiring freeze” was billed as a prudent means of easing the pain.
Except, it never happened.
Payroll documents first obtained by the Bill King for Mayor campaign indicate that since the passage of Proposition B, the City has added nearly 270 employees at an estimated annual cost of more than $12 million dollars through January.
“I think that it just adds to that growing sense that this is a manufactured financial crisis,” said King.
Among the new hires for the City were additional lawyers, communication specialists, and even a naturalist for municipal parks.
Asked if the City was in a hiring freeze, Council Member Michael Kubosh responded, “obviously not.”
By far the biggest recipient of new personnel since the hiring freeze is the Houston Police Department which, back in October, the Mayor warned would endure deep cuts if Prop B passed.
“You are going to have layoffs and you are going to have about 1000 layoffs. You are going to have firefighters laid off, police officers and municipal workers,” predicted Turner in the October debate.
But six months later, City government appears to have actually gotten bigger. The City disputes this reporting there are 22,034 employees currently on the payroll compared to 22,206 on November 1, 2018. That’s a reduction in force of 172 since the hiring freeze or .77%
“Yes, we are under a hiring freeze and the Mayor is continuing to hire people, which makes it difficult to support the idea that we are in a hiring freeze. Yes, it’s hard to justify why we are laying off firemen while at the same time we are hiring policemen and other City employees,” said City Councilman Mike Knox.
As for that prediction of 1,000 or more lay-offs, that number has dropped too, by close to 70 percent with not a single police officer slated for dismissal from the City’s workforce.
Unless the numbers change again, the Mayor’s repeated warnings at last October’s debate and at multiple community meetings were, at best, off-target.
“There will be layoffs and there will be layoffs across the board,” pronounced Turner in his closing statement at the debate sponsored by the Harris County Democratic Party.
In an email to Fox 26, Mayoral spokesperson Alan Bernstein suggested additional hiring since the freeze is driven, at least in part, by funding sources outside the general fund, like federal grants.
As for the reduction in the proposed number of layoffs, Mayoral spokesperson Mary Benton said the lower number was made possible by a restructuring plan and by incorporating natural attrition in the city work force.
Neither Benton or Bernstein responded directly to the question, “Is the City still in a hiring freeze?”.
Fox 26 has requested from the City a tabulation of new hires since passage of Prop B.