Reprinted with Permission
Last year, one Houston Fire Department deputy chief retired and walked away with a generous check for $211,808 — and that was just for his unused sick days, vacation and holiday pay.
An executive HFD chief with 39 years on the job also retired in 2010 and left with a payout of $186,409 for his leftover sick time, vacation and holiday pay.
Those hefty termination checks helped account for nearly $17 million paid in the last two years to Houston firefighters who retired or quit and collected on their unused sick days, vacation and holiday pay, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of benefits.
In 2010 alone, the 128 firefighters who left HFD were paid $8.7 million, a 6 percent increase over the $8.2 million departing firefighters received in termination pay during 2009.
The top 10 severance payments to retired firefighters for the last two years were all above $142,000, and while most firefighters received more than $10,000 there were several payments of less than $1,000.
The city's long-standing policy allowing firefighters to cash in on their unused sick, vacation and holiday time has emerged as a critical factor in the Fire Department budget during the current fiscal crisis, as Fire Chief Terry Garrison seeks ways to trim operating expenses and avoid laying off firefighters or closing fire stations.
Last October, Garrison said mounting overtime and severance payments caused a $10 million budget shortfall, which he proposed closing by transferring firefighters from office jobs to fire stations, outsourcing the uniform shop and reducing the number of response teams.
There are nearly 600 Houston firefighters who have 30 years or longer on the job and could retire at any time, part of a pool of future retirees who collectively could be owed an estimated $75 million to $80 million in termination pay, Garrison said.
There is no way to predict when, or how many, of the older firefighters will elect to retire, the chief said.
Garrison said the city owes the departing firefighters the money, adding the department saved funds in the past because overtime was not paid to staff shifts where firefighters worked instead of taking sick days or vacation time.
"When these benefits were negotiated many years ago, there was going to be a time and a place when those were going to have to be paid out. So now we've reached a point where … we're paying it out, and people are surprised at the amounts,“ Garrison said. "As far as I'm concerned, those were negotiated in good faith, and they are fair benefits."
'They Earned The Money'
Jeff Caynon, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association local 341, maintains the department's budget shortfall was "artificially created" by city officials who only allocated half the amount previously budgeted for severance packages and overtime costs.
He bristled at the notion of not paying Houston firefighters the severance pay they're owed for working long hours in a hazardous job that paid less for similar employment in the private sector.
"They earned the money. So anybody saying 'can we afford it?' - the only way you can afford it is to steal it from them, because they've earned it,“ Caynon said. "I mean, this is for time they have worked."
Houston is not unique among Texas cities who allow fire employees to save unlimited amounts of vacation and sick leave, although officials in Austin and Dallas said caps have been negotiated on severance hours firefighters can collect.
"Oh man, that would be a true benefit,“ said Lt. Joel Lavender, a spokesman for the Dallas Fire Department, when told of the amount of some of Houston's severance checks.
The financial liability of termination payments for city workers concerns some elected officials, who are already worried about future contributions to fund pension plans for police, fire and municipal workers.
City Council member Anne Clutterbuck characterized the future liability the city faces for severance payments for fire and police as "staggering,“ and likened some of the recent payments as winning the lottery or a jackpot.
"It is huge, and if everyone took advantage of it, it will bankrupt the city, and the public needs to know about it. I can tell you both the police and fire (administrations) are very aware of it,“ she said.
The specter of hundreds of city workers retiring overnight - and the millions they would be owed - permeates every budget discussion about city pay and benefits, Clutterbuck said.
"You don't want to negotiate or even have a conversation in public about pensions, or about health care benefits or any of the other ways we compensate city employees because, God forbid, it might trigger a mass exodus and we can't afford to pay it,“ Clutterbuck said. "We're stuck with the existing obligations unless we go into bankruptcy, which is not something on the horizon.“
At the Houston Police Department, where nearly half the force is eligible to retire, termination payments to officers who leave are not made in a lump sum. Due to state legislation allowing police unions and city management in Houston to negotiate on salaries and benefits, retiring HPD officers agreed to collect their severance pay through one of three "Phase Down" programs that continues their normal paychecks until accrued hours are paid off, said Mark Clark, executive director of the Houston Police Officers' Association.
Hours Now Capped
Officers can also elect to take a five-year payout of their termination package.
The 300 police officers who retired, quit, died or were fired during calender years 2009 and 2010 collected $1,066,378 in severance payments, according to city payroll records.
Caynon said city officials have opposed efforts to allow fire department retirees to enter a phase down program for severance pay.
Garrison noted newer firefighters have a cap on the number of vacation hours they can accrue, adding the city is making efforts to better plan for retirements.
"What we're trying to do is negotiate a way that makes it more reasonable for the city and the same time makes it a benefit to the members as they leave,“ the fire chief said.