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No one ever said pension reform was going to be easy

The firefighters’ pension fund isn’t happy with the way things are going.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The plan to reform the City of Houston’s pension system is running into opposition from the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund (HFRRF).

In a recent letter sent to its members, the HFRRF criticized Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner for ending the negotiations on the final version of the pension reform bill, which is being drafted in the Texas Legislature.

Turner has told the staff working on the bill’s final version to roughly match the terms for the firefighters to those that the Police pension fund has agreed to.

The HFRRF says it will oppose that option.

David Keller, the HFRRF’s chairman, notes that some of the adjustments firefighters wanted to see in the bill included “changes to the cost of living adjustments.”

“It would include changes to the deferred retirement option funding, it would change age of retirement for new hires,” Keller adds.

The Mayor said last week the unwillingness of the firefighters to fully abide by the terms he is proposing, for instance, increasing employee payroll contributions, would result in bigger benefit cuts than they tentatively agreed to last fall.

The Chron adds on.

Turner had said at last Wednesday’s City Council meeting that he was making good on earlier hints that the fire pension trustees’ failure to agree to reform terms would see the fund receive deeper benefit cuts than it had tentatively agreed to last fall. Turner said he had instructed legislative attorneys drafting the bill to roughly match the firefighters’ terms to those agreed to by the police pension.

“Our mayor, the former state legislator, has decided to use the insider’s game of the legislative process to pursue his own one-sided plan,” Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund chairman David Keller wrote in a letter to members released late Friday. “If the mayor’s plan for us is the version we last saw or worse, we will absolutely oppose it.”

In explaining his reason for breaking off negotiations this week, Turner had said that Keller’s board had not provided comprehensive data on plan participants to enable the city to accurately predict future costs under the reform plan. As a result, Turner said, the city was forced to propose deeper cuts to ensure the originally projected cost savings are achieved.

“Even in this message, there is no indication they are going to provide the data we have asked for repeatedly,” Turner said Friday evening, responding to Keller’s letter. “Without those numbers, we are unable to verify the cost of the reforms they have offered. I have been very patient throughout this entire process, but the time has come to move forward, and I am doing so in the best interest of the city.”

The do-nothing option has always been fine for the HFRRF, because the city has no control over how much it pays in, which includes cost of living adjustments. That’s always been the main sticking point, and was the focus of reform efforts by Mayors Parker and White, as well as the reason why their relationship with the firefighters was rocky. I don’t blame the firefighters for defending their position, but from the city’s perspective there’s no path to reining in costs that doesn’t include some control over COLAs. This has always been the fight, and it will continue to be the fight, probably even after a reform bill is passed, whenever that may be.

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2 Comments

  1. Steve Houston says:

    The HFFRF only agreed to specific cuts late last year, refusing to give the initial proposal a complete thumb’s up because they knew how the exact legislative language would matter. Since that time, when they were rushed to sign off for that press conference that was supposed to show all three funds in agreement, they’ve met with the Mayor and his people scores of times to hammer out the details. Guess what? Yeah, additional cuts and loose language were put into play by the city so the deal morphed from one arrangement to something much worse. Why would anyone agree to a double set of cuts in order to lower pensions to the point the police were taking, essentially combining their 2004 and recent cuts but without all the pay raises they received since they broke parity?

    Considering their fund is still among the best funded in the state after two years of market turmoil, why should they get hit with well over a billion dollars in benefit cuts without corresponding adjustments to direct pay? The city plans to cut a huge check to the other two funds to partially restore them yet the HFFRF is left hanging with hundreds of millions left unpaid (due to smoothing averages) and massive cuts way beyond what was promised when they met in good faith so often? How is that fair? The legislature will give it a better deal, just you watch…

  2. When is Amanda Edwards going to use her harvard law degree and put the tax loopholes on her website?