Houston City Council’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs committee hosted a public hearing on the pay parity petition submitted by the city’s firefighters. The meeting amounted to little more than political theater and barely touched upon the actual issue at hand — placing the item on the ballot.

At the behest of Mayor Sylvester Turner, Council Member Dave Martin called the meeting to discuss the issue, which is still not even on the ballot. Yet no action was ever going to come out of the hearing because there are no deciding votes in committee hearings nor action following, so really it was used as a way to put on tax-funded political theatrics.

Several officials were summoned to speak by referendum opponents in an effort to validate Turner’s arguments. Among them were Finance Director Tantri Emo, Houston’s Fire Chief Sam Peña, and Greater Houston Partnership head Bob Harvey, who all used assumptions, speculations, and little backup information in their opposition to the item.

For instance, Emo’s testimony began with a disclaimer: “This presentation is based on assumptions about the possible operation and fiscal impact of the proposed Charter Amendment that would require pay ‘parity’ for Houston Firefighters.”

If everything was based off of “assumptions,” “possibilities,” and “proposals,” why even have the hearing? Council Member Mike Knox had the same question. “I’m confused why we’re having this meeting today because the item up for discussion is not yet on the ballot,” he said. “I would suggest to my colleagues that we are engaging in a tremendous waste of energy and time.”

During Peña’s testimony, he acknowledged there is currently no chart comparing the pay of Houston Fire with other departments, but said their staff was currently working on one.

Harvey showed up late but was bumped to the top of the speaker’s list because, according to Martin, he had a “tight schedule.”

“While the partnership has not taken a formal position, I’m here this morning to express our concern,” Harvey said before citing the proposed cost, voters being in charge of public employees’ salaries, and impact on the corridor mechanism, a provision implemented with last year’s pension reform, as reasons that GHP is concerned over the measure.

The pension reform mention was unexpected, as it’s unlikely that as many legislators would’ve supported it knowing it would have inhibited future pay increases for firefighters. Harvey said that, if passed, the petition would raise the cap on the pension corridor mechanism they put in place and could cause future problems.

Interestingly, Harvey also noted that though his board had not taken a position on altering the revenue cap, they would be willing to sit down with the mayor and discuss options.

While a lot of breath was expelled around the council table, nothing came of the meeting. It was a parade of opponents, there to initiate the campaign against an item that hasn’t even made it onto the ballot yet.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.