On Wednesday, the Houston City Council was poised to vote on a $6.7 billion budget, a 5-year collective bargaining agreement with the city’s firefighters, and a $650 million judgment bond for firefighter back pay; but all three of the items were delayed. 

The fiscal year 2025 operating budget, which Mayor John Whitmire is calling a “bridge budget,” raised some concerns from council members during the budget workshop and hearing process over the last two weeks.

Some were concerned with using one-time federal aid to close a $160 million gap, and others said there hadn’t been a broad enough discussion about the budget and the city’s priorities. Regardless, it was expected to be tagged or delayed by a council member for one week, something that happens every year to allow the council extra time to review the proposed budget and consider budget amendments. 

What wasn’t expected was the type of delay that postponed the vote on the firefighter collective bargaining agreement and $650 million back pay settlement. While some council members indicated they planned to tag these items as well, they didn’t have to.

City Controller Chris Hollins refused to certify the availability of funds for the settlement, meaning that without his signature, it couldn’t be formally brought before the council for consideration. While controllers have refused to certify items before, it’s not something that happens often. 

Hollins said that the limited time his office had to review the documents is what caused him to withhold certification. 

An unauthorized “leaked” version of the CBA floated around City Hall last month, but the administration repeatedly claimed it was inaccurate and told council members they would provide an official copy.

Today, Hollins said his office only received a copy of the official agreement 48 hours before the council was set to vote, which is when council members say they also received it.

The 123-page document details the pay and benefits for Houston firefighters for at least the next five years and is tied to a $650 million non-voter-approved judgment bond that the city will pay back over a 25 to 30-year period. Hollins said he wasn’t comfortable certifying the item without having an opportunity to run financial models and have his office analyze its impact on the city. 

Both items are expected to be back before the council next week for consideration, although questions will undoubtedly persist.  

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.

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