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What are the elections of interest this May?

That’s a question I’m asking as well as one I’m trying to answer. Normally, there are no elections in May of any kind of year for Houston folks, though there are some for parts of Harris County and surrounding areas. This year for the uniform election date of May 5 we do have the special election in City Council District K to succeed the late CM Larry Green. The filing deadline for this is March 26, so we should know in very short order who is in the running.

We should also know by March 26 whether that firefighters pay parity proposal will be on the ballot or not. The firefighters would like to know about that, too.

There is one legislative special election on tap for May 5. State Rep. Leighton Schubert in HD13 stepped down earlier this year, so this race is to fill out the remainder of his term. That doesn’t really mean much unless the winner of that race also wins in November, in which case he or she will have a seniority advantage over all the other members of the class of 2018. If I’m reading this list correctly, there are three candidates – Democrat Cecil Webster, Republican Ben Leman, and Republican Jill Wolfskill. Webster is on the November ballot – he also ran in 2016, getting 21.4% against Schubert in a district that voted 76.8% to 20.4% for Donald Trump. Leman and Wolfskill are in the runoff for the GOP nomination. If Webster can somehow make it to the runoff for this, even with the low stakes, it would be quite the achievement.

Closer to home, I know there are elections in Pearland for Pearland City Council – they have three-year terms, so they have elections every year – and Pearland ISD – I don’t know offhand what their terms are, but as you can see on the election results page, they have those races every year as well. Dalia Kasseb, who ran a strong race for Pearland City Council last year, is making another run this year. She is on the list of TDP-endorsed Project LIFT slate, as is Al Lloyd for Pearland ISD.

There are other races on that slate, though none in the Houston area. I’ve seen ads on Facebook for a candidate running for Deer Park ISD, but at this time I know nothing about her. Ballotpedia says these are three-year terms but there isn’t a page for 2018 yet. These elections are apparently not conducted by the Harris County Clerk, and I’m not seeing anything on the DPISD Board of Trustees webpage, so I’m throwing this out to y’all – if you know anything about this, please leave a comment and let me know.

So there you have what I know about elections for this May. What am I missing? Please fill me in.

Firefighters sue to get their pay parity petitions certified

I’m just going to put this here.

Houston firefighters on Monday asked a judge to force the city secretary to validate signatures on an equal pay referendum petition that has been backlogged in City Hall for eight months.

The referendum would require firefighters to receive the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank. It was first submitted to the city in July but wasn’t validated before the November election. In December, leaders of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued, asking a judge to give City Secretary Anna Russell 30 days to count and validate the petition signatures.

State District Judge Dan Hinde did not issue an immediate ruling after a three-hour trial Monday.

City attorneys argued the firefighters’ claim lacks the urgency needed to secure a court order.

State law forced Russell last year to count a petition related to alcoholic beverages in the Heights within 30 days, after which she returned to tallying a pension-related petition to amend the city charter that her office received in April, said Assistant City Attorney Brian Amis.

The firefighters’ petition, which also would amend the charter, was submitted in July. State law sets no deadline by which charter petitions must be validated.

When neither petition was verified in time for the November 2017 ballot, Amis said, that removed any urgency behind the count, as the next municipal election will not be held until November 2019.

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s a long section in the story that goes into City Secretary Anna Russell’s process for certifying petitions and how she doesn’t take direction from the Mayor or accept help from the petitioners, both of which I think are good things. I’ll say that it feels a little ridiculous to me that this hasn’t been completed by now – I mean, if it had taken this long to count the anti-HERO petitions, that one may never have gotten on the ballot. On the other hand, maybe this isn’t the sort of thing that should be decided by an oddball sure-to-be-under-ten-percent-turnout election in May. And on the other other hand, I’m hard pressed to imagine any ballot language that won’t be seriously challenged in court regardless of the outcome, which given past history makes one wonder if it wouldn’t be more expeditious to litigate first and vote later. All I know for sure is that as with the District K special election, if we don’t have this ready for the ballot by March 26 – that is, two weeks from today – it ain’t happening in May. Good luck sorting this all out.

Feds sue city over HFD sex discrimination claims


The Justice Department has sued the city of Houston over sex discrimination claims launched by two female firefighters who say their male coworkers tormented them by urinating on the women’s bathroom walls and sinks and scrawling vulgar slurs on their belongings.

Male firefighters allegedly turned off the cold water in showers to scald their female coworkers and disconnected speakers to prevent women from responding to calls in a string of bad behavior that eventually escalated to death threats, according to the lawsuit.

“Far too often, women are targeted and harassed in the workplace because of their sex,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Civil Rights Division. “Employees have the right to work in an environment that is free from sex discrimination and retaliation.”

The conduct continued over time despite at least nine complaints to management, which failed to remedy the situation and allegedly created a hostile work environment for firefighters Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes.

The city did not comment on the suit, while the firefighters’ union pushed to see more evidence released in the case and decried long-standing criticism of the department.

“Dozens of firefighters cooperated in the various investigations of this incident, but unfounded criticism of Houston firefighters has continued for years,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said.


Representatives from the firefighters’ union said the lawsuit underscored the need for city officials to make public the findings of an investigation involving 40 firefighters that were polygraphed and who gave sworn statements or handwriting samples during the investigation.

“From the beginning of this controversy, Houston firefighters have wanted the perpetrator(s) of the incidents at Station 54 found and punished appropriately,” Lancton said, in an emailed statement.

The union leader emphasized that the firefighters exonerated in the course of the investigation deserved to be recognized as such.

“Former Mayor Annise Parker rightly said in 2010 that Houston firefighters were ‘unjustly under a cloud.’ Eight years later, the cloud remains,” he said.

“The time has come for authorities to release all of the evidence in this case. Without a proper conclusion, the unjust ‘cloud’ will undermine a basic tenet of our justice system – innocent until proven guilty.”

The city has since announced that it will defend itself and that it “does not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment”; you can see the city’s statement here. I thought I’d written more about this in the past, but this is the only post that I can find.

The behaviors alleged are terrible and disgusting. I can’t imagine what it was like to be Jane Draycott or Paula Keyes. The fact that a city investigation failed to find the perpetrators – the story also referenced an unsuccessful FBI investigation – is greatly disheartening, and I think the key to this. Because while it may be the case that “dozens of firefighters cooperated” in those investigations, the one thing that I know to be true is that it is firefighters who did these vile acts, and firefighters who know who did them. And neither the guilty parties nor their buddies, who surely know who they are and what they did, came forward to admit any of it.

So while there is a cloud over the department, it is for that reason that I disagree that it is “unjust”. I guarantee you, there are plenty of firefighters who know who did what and when. Maybe that information exists in the city OIG report, but it doesn’t really matter. Nothing is stopping the firefighters who know the truth from coming forward on their own and telling it. And please, don’t tell me that it would be hard or that they would put themselves at risk or anything like that. It was hard for Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes. Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes put themselves at significant risk, and they very much felt the consequences for that. The firefighters who know the truth can damn well deal with it.

So sure, the city should release its report. Maybe it will tell us things we don’t already know. But some people could tell us even more than that. It’s time they started. The #MeToo movement is ultimately about work, and the women who have been denied the opportunity to do the work they want to do, not just by the lowlifes who harass them but by those who stood by and stayed silent as it was happening. Now, at long last, is HFD’s chance to do something about that. Courthouse News, which has a copy of the lawsuit, has more.

The latest report on city finances

A little light reading for you.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Even after Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark pension reforms, the city of Houston is on pace to spend $1 billion more than it will take in over the coming decade, and must cut spending and raise revenue bring its annual budget into balance, according to an exhaustive new report.

Failing to do so, the authors state, risks letting the city inch toward insolvency with all the symptoms that accompany such a fiscal crisis: Worker layoffs, an erosion in police staffing, fewer library hours, decaying parks facilities, a hollowing out of the city as the suburbs boom.

The analysts from Philadelphia-based consulting firm PFM did not shy away from controversial recommendations, including some that would dramatically restructure city government.

Among dozens of other reforms, the authors suggest Houston should:

  • break up its mammoth Houston Public Works department and consolidate its finance, procurement, human resources, and information technology staff;
  • cut the $9.5 million annual subsidy to the Houston Zoo roughly in half;
  • shrink the Houston Fire Department by up to 845 positions through attrition and lengthen firefighters’ work weeks; reduce the number of fire stations; hire civilians to do fire inspections and take 911 calls; and raise ambulance fees;
  • hire civilians for the Houston Police Department to enable cops now doing administrative tasks to get back on patrol; free up officers’ time by arresting fewer low-level offenders and writing more tickets; use civilians to conduct crash investigations and issue non-moving traffic tickets; consolidate with Metro’s police staff, and, perhaps, local school districts’ too;
  • cut health benefits for active and retired city workers; and
  • submit trash pickup, building maintenance and street repairs to “managed competition,” giving all or part of each task to city departments or to private companies, whichever submits the most efficient proposal.
  • City Council hired PFM for $565,000 in 2016, Turner’s first year in office, to craft a 10-year financial plan. Turner made clear in comments last week, however, that he views some of the recommendations as impractical.

“When you talk about structural changes, just because it’s identified doesn’t mean it’s easily done. It’s not about taking a report and just implementing it,” he said. “There are some things that, from my vantage point, yes, we will accept. There are some things that are going to require additional study. There are some things that will be more long term. And then there are some things that we’ll never get there.”

The report is here; it’s quite long, but the executive summary is only 16 pages, so read that if you want a feel for it. At first glance, a lot of it sounds reasonable and even doable. I appreciate the fact that they recognize that revenue is part of the equation and that removing the stupid revenue cap would go a long way towards alleviating the problem. Some actions could be done by Mayoral fiat, some by Council action, and some will require negotiations with third parties and/or legislative approval. It’s always possible that a report like this becomes little more than a doorstop, but I think we’ll see at least some of it happen.

Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the city bonds

The Chron circles back to where they started this endorsement season.

The spotlight of public attention has focused on the billion dollar pension bond referendum, Proposition A, whose passage is absolutely critical to Houston’s financial future. But if you’re a Houston voter, you’ll also find on your ballot four bond issues that will pay for a long list of projects and equipment essential to our city government.

Proposition B would authorize the city to borrow $159 million for the police and fire departments. The Houston Police Department needs the money for everything from improvements to its training academy to pouring new pavement at HPD facilities. The Houston Fire Department would use its funds to pay for renovating and expanding some of its fire stations. And both departments need to tap the bond money to update their aging fleets of cars, trucks and ambulances.

Proposition C would authorize $104 million in bonds for park improvements, including upgrades to 26 of the 375 parks around the city, making sure they are usable, safe and fun. To take one example: Baseball and soccer are popular with both young and older athletes in many neighborhoods, but many city ball fields are equipped with old wooden light poles. The bond issue would allow the Houston Parks and Recreation Department to replace them with new metal poles, energy efficient lights and underground wiring. The upgrade would also include a remote control feature that would reduce personnel costs.

Proposition D would raise $109 million for a variety of public health and solid waste disposal expenses. Much of this money would go to renovating and rehabilitating old multi-service centers, which are used as everything from health clinics to election polling places. Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department, the people who pick up our garbage, would spend their share of this money on a “to do” list that includes a new disposal facility and a storm water mitigation project.

Proposition E would go a long way toward upgrading library services throughout the city with a $123 million bond issue, directly benefiting at least 24 of the city’s 42 libraries. Not everyone can afford a home computer, yet in this digital age access to a computer is crucial to success. That’s why it’s such a shame that so many of Houston’s neighborhood libraries are in disrepair. The bond proceeds will replace the roofs and repair the exteriors of ten libraries and will rebuild four neighborhood libraries.

Maybe you’re wondering why these propositions don’t include money for flood control after Hurricane Harvey. It’s a logical question with an equally logical answer. In order to appear on the ballot in November, the plans for these bond issues were presented to city council in early August, weeks before the storm hit.

Beyond that, flood control in the Houston area has mainly been the responsibility of the county and federal governments. When voters ask why more hasn’t been done to mitigate flooding, those are questions that need to be addressed mainly to the county judge and commissioners as well as our elected representatives in Washington.

The Chron had endorsed these bond issues in their first such editorial of the cycle, but that one was primarily about the pension bonds, and only mentioned the others in passing. You read what these are about, it’s hard to understand why anyone would oppose them, but a lot of people don’t know much about them, and of course some people will always oppose stuff like this. As you know, I believe the bonds will pass, but we’re all just guessing. We’ll know soon enough.

The fire department’s needs

This is a conversation we need to have, but it’s one we need to dig into and work all the way through.

Fire Chief Sam Pena gave City Council a bleak assessment Tuesday of his department’s readiness to respond to significant rainstorms, or even daily fire and medical calls, saying a ramshackle fleet and inadequate training are putting the safety of citizens and firefighters at risk.

The Houston Fire Department must double its annual spending on new engines, ladders and ambulances, the chief said, and must ramp up its purchases of water rescue apparatuses and the training.

The department has a “moral and legal” duty, Pena said, to provide safe and effective vehicles and equipment to its 4,100 firefighters and the residents they serve.

Instead, he said, engines are catching fire on the scene or at stations; one dropped a gas tank en route to a call. Another time, he said, an ambulance broke down while carrying a cardiac patient to a hospital. Reserve vehicles have to stand in for broken-down front-line apparatus 85 percent of the time, he said.

“We haven’t allocated the right resources to ensure we’re preparing our firefighters to do the job we’re asking them to do,” said Pena, who became chief last December. “What Harvey put a spotlight on is the lack of resources that we’ve had, but it’s a reality that we’re living as a department every day. We have to make a decision about what we want our fire department to do and what we’re willing to fund.”


On Tuesday, he told the council’s public safety committee that HFD had received funding for 20 of the 47 engines it sought in the last three budget cycles. It also got 10 of 19 requested ladder or tower trucks, and 36 of 75 requested ambulances, he said.

The city has budgeted $5.5 million to $5.8 million in each of the next five years to purchase fire vehicles, but Pena said $11 million is needed annually to ensure HFD meets his recommendation of replacing 16 ambulances, nine engines and four ladder or tower trucks each year.

If voters pass the $495 million city bonds on the November ballot, officials said the department will get $10.8 million a year for five years to renew its fleet.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said it has been evident since he took office that HFD – along with police and city trash haulers – have been working with inadequate vehicles.

“Today Chief Pena painted a picture I know well. We are going to meet these needs as much as we can with the limited city revenues we have, hence the importance of the public safety bonds that the voters are asked to approve,” Turner said. “This is just one of the steps we need to take to get us where we need to be.”

See here for some background. The bond issue on the ballot would help the Fire Department replace old equipment, but it would not be enough to also buy more flood-rescue gear or pay for training on it. That will require further spending from the city, including from general revenue, at a time when there’s not a lot of spare change lying around and the city’s revenue stream is hamstrung by the stupid revenue cap. We should, as I have said here and in that earlier post, have a real discussion about what HFD needs and how we’re going to pay for it, and I trust everyone agrees that kicking the can down the road isn’t a great idea. But that discussion needs to include how HFD spends its money now, because as the Chron editorial board reminds us, their track record on fiscal matters is not good.

Tensions between City Hall and Houston firefighters have simmered for years, and things finally boiled over. Firefighters are frustrated because pension reform cut their benefits; they haven’t received a raise in years, and City Hall has failed to spend enough on much-needed high-water vehicles and other equipment.

Those grievances can sound pretty convincing until you look at things from the perspective of a taxpayer.

The firefighter pension system was unsustainable and needed to be reformed. In June, the firefighter union rejected a 9.5 percent pay raise as insufficient. And City Hall has budgeted more than $5 million per year for the next five years to purchase new fire equipment.

Fire Chief Sam Peña told City Council this week he wants double that amount.

Perhaps Peña should first ask his own staff for cash. HFD’s Life Safety Bureau alone racked up $5.6 million in overtime, according to a recent city audit, all while fudging building inspection numbers. And three years ago – under a different chief – a single year of unexpected overtime blew an $8 million hole in the fire department’s finances. Five percent of that budget gap was due solely to firefighters taking off the first weekend of hunting season. (Note to Peña: Deer season opens Nov. 4).

The board renews its call again for a blue ribbon panel to review HFD’s operations from top to bottom, noting that while the department is geared towards fighting a declining number of fires, the vast majority of the calls it receives are for emergency medical services, for which fire trucks are dispatched. I’m prepared to spend more money on HFD to bring them up to speed on the things we need from them, but I want to know that we’re using that money wisely. If we’re not also prepared to answer that question, then I don’t know when we ever will be. The Press has more.

Endorsement watch: The bonds

Endorsement season has officially begun.

The key referendum, Proposition A, is a solution to Houston’s potentially disastrous pension problem. A complex deal ushered through the Texas Legislature by Mayor Sylvester Turner would reduce the $8.2 billion unfunded pension burden now carried by Houston taxpayers to $5.2 billion. Union leaders representing police officers and municipal employees have agreed to sacrifice benefits worth roughly $1.8 billion. But the whole arrangement depends upon voters approving a $1 billion bond issuance, 1 of 5 city bonds on the ballot.

The pension bond wouldn’t raise taxes, nor would it increase the public debt. Houston already owes this money to its retired employees; this deal will take care of a debt that’s already on the books. The bonds will be paid off over the course of three decades. By coincidence, this happens to be a good time for the city to borrow money. This is like refinancing your mortgage when interest rates are low.

On the other hand, Turner bluntly and accurately told the Chronicle’s editorial board, if the pension obligation bonds go down, “it’s worse than the financial impact of Harvey.” Before this deal was struck, our city government was staring at the grim prospect of laying off more than 2,000 employees, about 10 percent of its workforce, a cut that would almost certainly impact police and firefighters.


Meanwhile, four other bond proposals would pay for facilities and equipment at everything from police and fire stations to city parks and libraries. At a time when our police officers are driving around in cars that are more than a decade old, we voters need to pass these capital improvement bonds.

The campaign for the bonds is underway, and I do expect them to pass. But this is a weird year, and turnout is going to be well below what we’re used to – and we ain’t used to particularly robust turnout – so anything can happen. The big task in this election for all campaigns is just making sure people know they need to go vote. If you’re reading this site, you already know that much. I say vote for the bonds as well, for all the reasons the Chron gives.

HFD and disaster preparedness

There’s a lot here to think about, and to do something about.

The Houston Fire Department’s limitations quickly became clear as Harvey’s floodwaters rose.

Just one high-water rescue vehicle. Decades-old evacuation boats. Sparse training for swift-water rescues. And limited staffing after an 11th-hour decision not to call in major reinforcements to face the catastrophic storm.

The department had been warned. Lethal flooding two years ago exposed shortcomings and prompted sweeping recommendations to improve future responses.

And yet, when firefighters rushed fearlessly into Harvey’s currents in late August, they were again hobbled by a lack of resources, old equipment and a shortage of manpower ready to go when the storm hit, according to a Chronicle review of internal reports and emails, and dozens of interviews with firefighters and other officials.

The review found a department – and a city – that failed to follow the hard-earned lessons of previous storms, even as one of the worst in U.S. history descended on the region.

“Civilians had to step up – which was a great thing – but that’s not their job,” one high-ranking fire official said. “It’s our job to protect and serve the public. We couldn’t do that because we didn’t have what we needed.”

Fire Chief Samuel Peña, who stepped in to lead the department in December, defended the response and commended his firefighters, who performed 7,000 rescues and answered more than 15,000 calls for help during the first five days of the storm.

But he acknowledged that Harvey exposed shortcomings in the department’s fleet and training.

“Harvey punched us in the mouth,” Peña said. “No municipality is ever going to have the number of resources to be able to respond to a catastrophic incident the size of Harvey. But we know the anticipated risk in this community. We know that the 500-year flood is going to come again next year … We don’t have the adequate resources to address even the expected risk in this community.”

Critics, however, say the department’s response suffered from more than neglect.

“Anyone with common sense could see with relative certainty there was going to be an enormous rescue effort that was going to be required following the impact of Hurricane Harvey,” said Jim Brinkley, director of occupational health and safety for the International Association of Fire Fighters. “It’s expected a department would allocate enough resources – in terms of staffing alone – to make sure they’re capable of responding.”

There are a lot of reasons why HFD’s ability to deal with mass flooding events isn’t any more advanced now than it was a few years ago, before such things had become annual occurrences. You can come to your own conclusions about who shoulders how much of the responsibility for that. I would just point out that any effective solution to this is going to cost money. Equipment costs money. Training costs money. Firefighters who have better training can earn more money, if not here then elsewhere. We can and should review how HFD uses the resources it has now – as we know, most of the demands on the department are for emergency medical services and not for fire, and HFD has a track record of being profligate with overtime – but there’s only so far you can squeeze before you start displacing things you’d rather keep. If we want HFD to be better at responding to these events, we’re going to have to make an investment in them, and not just a one-time investment. That means we the voters are going to have to come to grips with the need to spend more money, or with the reality that we’re going to keep getting what we’re already paying for. If there are hard choices to be made by our leaders, we have to be prepared for what that means to us.

Mayor seeks one-year tax hike for Harvey cleanup

This stuff isn’t going to pay for itself, you know.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask City Council to approve an 8.9 percent hike in the city’s tax rate this fall to help Houston recover from Tropical Storm Harvey, in what would be the first tax rate hike from City Hall in more than two decades.

The average Houston homeowner would pay $118 more in property taxes next year under the proposal, which will begin a series of public hearings later this month and reach a formal vote in mid-October.

The tax rate would rise from 58.64 cents per $100 of appraised value – the lowest city tax rate since the late 1980s – to 63.87 cents. That was the rate from 2009 through 2013, when a 13-year-old voter-imposed limit on Houston’s property tax collections first began forcing City Council to cut the rate each year to avoid bringing in more revenue than was allowed.

Turner is able to propose an increase beyond the strictures of the revenue cap – allowing the city to collect an extra $113 million for one year – because Harvey placed Houston under a federal disaster declaration.

“If this is not an emergency, I don’t know what is. What we’re able to recoup from one year, the $113 million, will not even be enough to cover the expenses we will have incurred,” Turner said Monday. “What we don’t get from the feds we’ll have to come up with ourselves. I would be not doing my job if I did not advance it.”

Debris removal could cost more than $200 million and will require Houston to foot 10 percent of the bill without being reimbursed. The city also lost 334 vehicles to floodwaters and saw its municipal courts complex, city hall and its adjacent annex and two wastewater treatment plants knocked offline.


If adopted, the higher rate would take effect only for homeowners’ January 2018 tax bills. Come the following January, the emergency period would end and the city’s tax rate again would be dictated by the voter-imposed cap, which limits the annual growth of Houston’s property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston and key revenue cap proponent, said he wants to speak with the mayor to remind him that homeowners’ assessed values are rising, meaning a tax rate hike would amount to a double increase.

Bettencourt refrained from outright criticism of the proposal and praised much of the mayor’s response to the storm. He urged caution on the tax proposal, however.

“The rate is just one half of the equation. The other half is how much the value has gone up,” he said. “This is a delicate public policy issue because we’ve got Houstonians that are literally flooded out of their homes and many people have been affected so they’re not in a position to pay the bill easily, much less if it increases.”

The average Houstonian in a $225,000 home with a standard homestead exemption sends $1,321 to City Hall annually. Turner’s proposal would see that bill rise by $117.86 next year.

Let’s be clear about a couple of things. Thanks to the revenue cap charter amendment, this can only be a one-year increase. The rate will be what we had from 2008 to 2013, so it’s not like this is some unprecedented assessment. The city can’t run a deficit, and it can’t borrow money without getting authorization from the voters. The property tax rate is basically the only mechanism the city has to raise this kind of money. The city will get some federal funds, but it may not have control over their appropriation, and some of those funds as noted in the story are contingent on the city putting up money as well. Lord only knows what the state will pay for, and the county will do its own thing.

The point here is that the city has some big unexpected bills to pay. It has to pay for a lot of overtime for police officers and firefighters who were rescuing people during the floods and who are dealing with aftereffects like traffic control. It has to pay for a lot of overtime to Solid Waste employees who are working to pick up the enormous piles of trash around the city. Your taxes are going up by a couple hundred bucks to pay for this. If you have a problem with that, I don’t know what to tell you, other than I can’t abide that kind of thinking.

Some people will say that we should find costs to cut instead. I will remind you that the vast majority of the city’s expenses are for personnel, and in this particular case the extra unbudgeted expenses are largely for overtime pay. Unless you think all these people should have worked for free, this argument is nonsense. Every time a government entity faces a budget shortfall, I hear people justify cutting programs and services as “shared sacrifice”. In my experience, most of the people who say that aren’t themselves sacrificing much of anything. The difference between those cuts and this rate increase is that this time the bulk of the sacrifice is being felt by a different crowd. If you don’t like it, maybe keep that in mind for the next time.

To address Sen. Bettencourt’s concern, I’m fine with exempting the people who were flooded out from the rate increase. If you filed a FEMA claim, you get to be assessed at the current rate. As for the Council members quoted in the story who say they can’t go along with this, I say no trash gets collected in their neighborhoods until every last piece of Harvey debris has been carted off. There’s a little shared sacrifice for you. The Press has more.

No charter amendments on the fall ballot

Just bonds, school board and HCC races, and the mostly boring constitutional amendments. Oh, and Heights Alcohol 2.0, if you live there.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston voters will face $1.5 billion in city bonds and nine community college or school board races this November, but will not be asked whether to give firefighters a pay raise or change the pension plans given to new city employees.

Monday was the last day on which candidates could file for the November ballot, and on which local governments could call an election. That means the clock ran out on the citizen-submitted petitions seeking the change in city pensions and backing the firefighters’ push for pay “parity” with police officers of corresponding rank.

There are exceptions to Monday’s deadline. Houston ISD trustee Manuel Rodriguez’s death in July means candidates looking to fill his seat have until Sept. 6 to file for office. Candidates who meet today’s filing deadline also can withdraw from the ballot as late as Aug. 28.

In broad terms, however, the fall election campaign is set.


State law sets no deadline by which petitions seeking changes to a city charter must be tallied.

“We’ve always done first one in, first one out,” City Secretary Anna Russell said late Friday. “We are still working on the 401(k) (petition) as we do our regular work.”

The petitions, if validated by Russell’s office, could be included on a May ballot.

And I think that’s fine, and will likely allow for a more focused discussion of that issue as there won’t be anything else for Houston voters to consider; the 401(k) item no longer has anyone advocating it, so the pay parity proposal would be all there is. Given the lack of city elections on this November’s ballot, it’s not clear that a May 2018 referendum would have much less turnout, especially if both sides spend money on it. I’m sure the firefighters wanted their issue to be voted on now, but having to wait till May is hardly an abomination.

I hope to have a finalized list of candidates for HISD and HCC soon. HISD has some candidate information here, but there’s not a similar page for HCC. I’ve got a query in to find out who’s running for what and will report back later. I’m starting on the interviews for 2017, and will have an Election 2017 page up in the next week or so.

Firefighters complain about petition counting process

Oh, good Lord.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston firefighters are accusing Mayor Sylvester Turner of standing between them and a voter-approved pay raise by failing to ensure a petition they submitted last month is certified in time to appear on the November ballot.

Turner rejected any suggestion that he has involved himself in the City Secretary’s effort to verify their petition, and his office on Thursday said an offer by the fire union to cover any staffing costs needed to count their signatures is being examined as a possible attempt to improperly influence a public official.


Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 president Marty Lancton accused the mayor of seeking to run out the clock, and said the speed with which firefighters gathered the required 20,000 signatures shows that voters want a say on the matter quickly.

“The mayor has the ability to provide Anna Russell with the resources with which to count this. He has not done it,” said Lancton. “I’m simply trying to find a way to get these counted. Firefighters are just asking for fair treatment and for there to be a resolution.”

The mayor dismissed the criticism.

“She’s the one who’s doing the counting, she verifies the signatures. That’s the process,” Turner said. “No one runs the city secretary’s shop but the city secretary.”


Accusations aside, Turner said that he is proceeding as if the item will reach a November vote, and has worked to get his message out by appearing on radio programs and discussing the issue publicly. The annual cost of the proposal, he said, could be “well north of $60 million.”

Russell, for her part, said neither the mayor nor anyone from his office has spoken to her about the matter. The process of verifying signatures, she said, must be completed in the spare minutes between her staff’s daily tasks of preparing ordinances, motions, contracts and the council agenda.

My head hurts. Why don’t we just assume that Anna Russell is going to do the job she’s been doing since God was in short pants and give her some room? If for some reason she can’t get it done in time for the filing deadline for November, then get it done for next May. Am I missing something here?

David Feldman, a former city attorney who is representing the fire union, said Russell should make an exception in this instance because he views the pension-related petition she now is reviewing as irrelevant.

That petition, which was submitted in April, calls for all city employees hired beginning next year to be given pensions similar to 401(k)s rather than traditional “defined benefit” pensions. Turner’s pension reform bill that passed the Legislature this year, however, specified what pension new hires would receive, Feldman said, and state law trumps local charters.

“If, in fact, they have 20,000 signatures and she certifies it, it can’t go on a ballot because it’s an unlawful measure,” Feldman said. “That’s where the tipping of the scales comes into play. That communication can be made to her. It obviously has not been made to her.”

Bernstein said Feldman’s reading is wrong. He pointed to a similar case out of Galveston in which the court ruled that a city secretary had a “ministerial duty” to validate a petition and forward it to the City Council, notwithstanding her view that its content conflicted with existing laws.

State law “does not give the City Secretary any discretionary duties,” a state appellate court held in that case. “Any complaints about the proposed amendment’s validity will be decided only if the voters approve the proposed charter amendment.”

Feldman stepped into the anti-HERO petition counting efforts in 2015, insisting that they needed to be checked for fraudulent signatures after Russell had certified that there were enough of them. Seemed like a reasonable argument at the time, but as we know the Supreme Court did not buy it, on grounds of those “magisterial duties” which dictated that she count ’em and that was that. And to answer my own question above, the one thing that could prevent the firefighters’ referendum from getting a vote in May would be having some other charter amendment on the ballot this fall. I had been wondering about that other petition effort, since the originator of it has since said the passage of the pension reform bill – the same one that has the firefighters so upset now – made her effort unnecessary. But if they still need to be counted, then I don’t know what happens next. Like I said, my head hurts.

More on the firefighters’ pay parity proposal

Here’s that full Chron story I mentioned yesterday:

Houston firefighters delivered over 32,000 signatures to City Hall on Monday in support of asking voters in November to mandate parity in pay between firefighter and police officer ranks, a maneuver that could threaten the city’s plans to sell $1 billion in bonds as part of its pension reform plan.

While the two measures are unrelated, both are tied to firefighters’ displeasure with the Turner administration.

As such, a unified voting bloc of firefighters during what is expected to be a low-turnout election in November could spell trouble for Mayor Sylvester Turner’s signature pension reform plan, and potentially thrust the city back into the fiscal quagmire Turner spent his first year in office trying to escape.

“If one issue is a five-alarm fire, both together are a 10-alarm fire,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.


The union originally sought a 21 percent pay raise over three years, according to Turner, but lowered that request to 17 percent. The city, meanwhile, offered 9.5 percent over three years, which Turner said would stretch the city’s financial capabilities.

Houston firefighters have been without a contract for three years. The “evergreen” terms that had governed their employment during that time lapsed last month, reverting to state law and local ordinance. City Council made the terms in that local ordinance less favorable in a unanimous vote on the same morning the union filed its lawsuit.

“This petition drive was necessary because Houston firefighters are at a breaking point,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association at a press conference Monday. “We now are asking the voters to help Houston firefighters because the city refuses to do so.”

The petition seeks to amend the city’s charter to mandate equal pay and benefits between firefighters and police-officers of similar status, but not necessarily title, accounting for varied rank structures between the two departments.

See here for the background. I have a basic question to ask here: Who is going to support the firefighters in this effort? Who will their allies be in this fight? Because I’m having a hard time seeing who is on their side right now.

As noted, Council voted unanimously to impose those less favorable “evergreen” terms under which they now grudgingly labor, and Council approved the pension reform plan on a 16-1 vote, with the only No coming from CM Knox, who wanted to see a bill get filed first. Who on Council is going to endorse the pay parity effort?

If the thinking is that the firefighters might try to tank the pension obligation bonds as payback or leverage as part of this, then please note that the House passed the pension reform bill 103-43, and the Senate passed it 25-5. Of the Harris County contingent, Sen. Sylvia Garcia was a “present, not voting”, while Reps. Jessican Farrar and Briscoe Cain (a pairing I’d never expected to see) were No votes. Everyone else voted Yes. I don’t see Sen. Garcia and Rep. Farrar crossing swords with Mayor Turner on this, and Rep. Cain represents Baytown. Who in the Lege will stand with the firefighters? Maybe Sen. Paul Bettencourt, because he’s a little weasel who likes to stick it to Houston, but he was the one who put the provision in to require a vote on the bonds.

Of the establishment groups that tend to get involved in city politics, the Greater Houston Partnership is all in on pension reform and spending restraint. I can’t see the Realtors opposing the Mayor on this, nor the GLBT Political Caucus, nor any Democratic-aligned groups. The one possible exception is labor, but this proposal would be bad for the police and the city workers. It’s not about a rising tide, it’s just shifting money to the firefighters from the rest of the city employees. Maybe labor backs this, maybe they don’t. The Chronicle will surely endorse a No vote. Who among the big endorsers will be with the firefighters?

I’m sure the firefighters will have some allies. My point is that as I see it, the Mayor already has a lot more. Which brings me to the next point, which is where will the firefighters get the money to run their pro-pay parity campaign? It helps to have allies, who can not only make donations themselves but also hold fundraisers, solicit contributions from their networks, and eventually participate in campaign activities. I think we all agree that Mayor Turner is a good fundraiser, and he can assemble a pretty good get out the vote campaign. While this is certainly likely to be a low turnout election, at least compared to a normal city election, turnout is in part determined by how many people are aware there is something or someone for them to vote on. Who do you think is going to have more resources and a bigger microphone for getting out a message about the need to vote? And bear in mind, even if the firefighters are good at raising money, that in itself can be used against them. I mean, here they are claiming poverty, holding up signs saying they can’t afford to live in the city, but they can spend a bunch of money on a campaign? Yes, I know, the one doesn’t really have anything to do with the other, but do you want to have to explain that to people?

What I think it comes down to is this: Sure, people like firefighters, and they think they should be adequately compensated. In the abstract, their proposal sounds reasonable, and there are probably a lot of people who would feel good about paying our firefighters more. But this isn’t an abstract choice, and there are lots of consequences to making it. The firefighters are asking for something for themselves, something that doesn’t benefit anyone else and which potentially has a large cost attached to it that everyone will pay. They’re doing all this while at the same time spitting on an offer from the city to give them a ten percent raise. Now how positively will people feel about their proposal? That’s what we’ll find out. Campos has more.

Firefighters turn in their petitions

Good for them, but boy is this thing a train wreck.

Houston firefighters delivered over 32,000 signatures to City Hall Monday in support of putting a ballot initiative on the November election mandating parity in pay between firefighter and police-officer ranks.


“This petition drive was necessary because Houston firefighters are at a breaking point,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association at a press conference Monday morning. “We now are asking the voters to help Houston fire fighters because the city refuses to do so.”

Former Houston City Attorney Dave Feldman, who is advising the petition effort, said a formal cost estimate of the initiative if approved in November has not been determined.

Using average figures for the cost of police and fire personnel without regard to rank, increasing fire base pay to match that of police would cost roughly $40 million in the current fiscal year. The city finance department projects annual budget deficits of more than $100 million for the next five years.

See here for the background, and a long comment thread. I mean look, this isn’t a proposal right now, it’s an idea. There are literally no details. If one were to run for office on this idea, one would expect to be questioned about basic things, like how much will this cost, and how will the city match job titles across two differently-structured departments. Anyone who provided the answers the firefighters are giving now would not be taken seriously, to put it mildly. In addition, while a candidate for office would have until November to come up with satisfying responses, the firefighters have until the end of August, at which time referendum language would have to be written and approved by City Council.

And what do you think that referendum language might say, based on what we know so far? Think of the recent history of ballot referenda and all the ensuing litigation over said language, and ask yourself if there is any possible wording that will satisfy both the proponents and opponents of this idea. The ballot language lawsuit practically writes itself – it will just be a matter of finding the right taxpayers to serve as plaintiffs. If it is written with sufficient detail to explain how it will be done it will be attacked as too complicated for anyone to understand, and if it is stated simply it will be derided as vague to the point of meaninglessness. This is a bad idea on so many levels, and you can take it to the bank that it will be tied up in court for years to come. The Press has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the full Chron story. I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

Firefighters petition for a raise


Houston firefighters are launching a campaign to place on item on the November ballot asking voters to mandate parity in pay between corresponding firefighter and police-officer ranks.

The petition drive to amend the city charter, slated to launch Saturday morning, follows the fire union’s decision last month to sue the city over stalled contract talks, alleging Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration failed to negotiate in good faith.

“I don’t know what else to do. We’re trying to find a fair and reasonable solution that affects 4,100 members and their families,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. “Let’s let the voters decide what’s fair and we’ll see.”


A 1975 City Council motion did set the goal of achieving parity in the base pay of equivalent ranks in the public safety departments, and the topic spurred regular fights throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Typically, firefighters and their supporters on council were in the position of working to ensure their salaries kept pace with police pay, though they were not always successful.

Parity was regularly mentioned into the mid-2000s, but the late 1998 contract negotiated by the newly recognized police union began to dismantle that system, recalled Mark Clark, executive director of the Houston Police Officers Union.

That police contract, Clark said, began adjusting HPD’s personnel structure so that the city could grant raises to, for example, 38 police captains without having to also boost the salaries of more than 120 fire personnel of corresponding rank.

“I know they’re desperate and they’re my friends, but this is a non-starter,” Clark said of the firefighters’ petition drive. “They’ve got an important job, but police and firefighters do not have the same job, and their rank structures are completely different. Just to come in and say, ‘We want what they’ve got’ – certainly I understand asking, but where in the world would the city of Houston come up with the kind of money that it would take?”

Apparently, something like $40 million per year, according to the story. This is an easy No vote for me, if it comes to one. We elect representatives to make these decisions, and it is generally my preference for that system to be allowed to do its thing. There’s a place for letting the voters decide on things, but this is not one of them. The cost, the difficulty in setting up a system to match job ranks, the fact that this is an obvious retaliatory move for the recent political setbacks the firefighters have experienced, those are also factors. I have no idea what happens from here, but if this does get on the ballot it will be interesting to see how a campaign plays out. The potential for it to get ugly is very high.

Firefighters’ lawsuit over pension reform law tossed

There it goes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state district judge on Friday dismissed Houston firefighters’ lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the city’s pension reform package, removing a potential barrier to the city’s efforts to solve a 16-year fiscal crisis.

State District Judge Patricia Kerrigan granted the city’s request to dismiss the case while denying firefighters’ motion to temporarily block the state law, known as SB2190, from going into effect Saturday.


Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund Chairman David Keller, meanwhile, said he was disappointed, adding that the board would discuss next steps with its legal team.

Kerrigan’s order gives the pension board the option to refile its lawsuit, which argued the reform law infringes on the fund’s exclusive right to select its own actuaries and choose the actuarial assumptions that will be used to determine contributions into the pension system.

See here for the background. I presume this will get appealed, but I kind of doubt it will get anywhere. One may wonder how it is that the relationship between the firefighters, who endorsed Turner for Mayor, and the Mayor has gotten so combative. I suspect it is more likely that the firefighters believed that despite Turner’s promises about pension reform he didn’t really mean to affect their pensions than it is that Turner was dishonest with them about what he intended to do. The firefighters, with some justification, have felt invulnerable for a long time. Having that come crashing down around them has got to be a tough thing to take. One also wonders how much previous Mayors, nearly all of whom have had tumultuous relationships with the firefighters, are getting a bit of grim satisfaction out of this. I mean, if the firefighters had ratified the contract agreement that their leadership agreed to with Mayor Parker in 2014, and if they had worked with Mayor Parker to pass a pension reform plan back in 2013, we wouldn’t be having any of this conversation now. Maybe they wouldn’t be any better off than they are now, but it’s hard to see how it would be any worse for them. I know, hindsight is 20-20, but surely some of this was foreseeable.

Firefighters sue city over contract negotiations

These are busy days for the HPFFA.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s fire union sued the city Wednesday alleging Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration failed to act in good faith during contract negotiations, exacerbating tensions between firefighters and City Hall.

The lawsuit filed in state district court came just two days before firefighters’ “evergreen” labor agreement with the city expires, at which point local and state law will govern their employment until a new deal is reached.

Those employment terms – unanimously approved by City Council Wednesday morning – are less favorable than those in the evergreen.

Turner said he offered to extend the more generous arrangement another 30 days while negotiations continued, but the fire union preferred to resolve the issue in court.

“When you say no, what do you expect a city to do?” Turner said before council voted to amend local ordinance. “They made their choice.”

A letter provided by the mayor’s office shows the city on May 12 proposed extending the collective bargaining agreement by 15 days. Three days later, firefighters declared an impasse, allowing them to request an arbitrator to settle the contract dispute.

The city declined that option, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said, but agreed to mediation, which began last week.


South Texas College of Law Houston Professor Richard Carlson said the vagueness of state law makes it difficult to assess firefighters’ chance of success.

“Our law is still very uncertain, and when you throw in the fact that public employees can’t strike anyway, it’s hard to say what the practical outcome in any of these cases is,” Carlson said.

It’s been a busy couple of months for the firefighters, and not in a good way. They lost the fight over the pension reform bill in the Lege, and subsequently filed a lawsuit over it. This fight was over their collective bargaining agreement with the city, which expired three years ago. I’m not exactly sure what they were hoping to accomplish with their negotiating tactics, but it appears they didn’t get what they wanted. I don’t know what will happen with these lawsuits or the contract talks, but I get the sense that the firefighters have lost some goodwill. It’s more than a little incredible that no one on Council voted against the less-favorable employment terms for them. They’re big players in city elections, so either they now have a lot of former friends or they have a problem of image or communications or something that they might want to consider addressing. I don’t know how to advise them other than to say they ought to give this all some thought. The Press has more.

We need better fire inspections

Not good.

The Houston Fire Department division responsible for ensuring building safety keeps inadequate records, does not examine buildings on a regular schedule and inflated its inspection numbers, all while exceeding its overtime budget, according to an audit released by the city controller’s office Thursday.

The audit for fiscal years 2015 and 2016 is the latest in a series of blistering critiques of the Life Safety Bureau and casts doubt on whether the city is complying with its fire code.

Just 526 of Houston’s more than 5,000 apartment buildings were inspected in the last two fiscal years, well below the bureau’s goal of 470 apartment inspections per month. There is also no evidence the city inspected Bush Intercontinental, Hobby or Ellington airports within the last two years.

Many of the 28 high-risk problems – from an incomplete inspection database to poor job training – were identified by the controller’s office more than a decade ago.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s when, unfortunately, something happens,” City Controller Chris Brown said. “We need to make sure that we don’t let this one go another 12 years without any action.”

Fire Chief Samuel Peña, who was appointed last year, said he welcomed the audit and has pledged to make a series of changes.

“Nobody likes to be told their baby’s ugly, but right now there’s a lot of need,” Peña said.

There’s a copy of the audit in the story if you want to see it for yourself. I don’t think there’s anything that isn’t fixable, but saftey inspections are a big deal with potentially many lives at stake, so HFD needs to get this right. Chief Peña has his work cut out for him. The Press has more.

Year Two for Mayor Turner

Year One was busy, but a lot of what was done this year depends on what happens next year.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Tasked last year with distinguishing himself from a crowded field of mayoral candidates, Sylvester Turner styled himself as a progressive with expansive policy goals.

He pledged to boost wages, improve educational opportunities and implement a new road repair job training program, stressing that Houston’s future depends on pairing such initiatives with core services improvements.

“I am bullish on Houston,” Turner would repeat, radiating optimism in the face of a tight budget and looming pension crisis.

A year into office, however, the mayor has set aside much of that to-do list in favor of an ambitious but moderate “back to basics” approach.

Pension reform – a topic he shied away from on the campaign circuit – now is the linchpin in Turner’s two-year plan, and he is loath to discuss much else.

That focus has paid off in the form of a reform package that he says will eliminate the underfunding of Houston’s three retirement systems in 30 years and limit the city’s exposure to market downturns.

Crucially, the plan has received buy-in from the fire, police and municipal pension boards, as well as praise from experts.

“When you look at where we were on Jan. 1, 2016, on pensions and look at where we are today,” Turner said recently, “there is no question that we have come a long, long way from where we started.”

The deal now must earn approval from the Texas Legislature, which controls Houston’s pension systems.


If Turner is successful, however, he intends to spend his political capital – earned, principally, from pension reform and closing this year’s $160 million budget gap – on campaigning to lift Houston’s limit on property tax collections.

The voter-approved revenue cap was instituted in 2004 and limits the increase in the city’s annual property tax collections to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

Turner is not shy about pitching projects he would take on, absent the revenue cap, such as expanding the Houston Police Department by 540 officers by 2020. This plan may take on even more urgency, as HPD has seen a sharp spike in the number of officers filing papers indicating they plan to retire in the first half of 2017.

“We need more police officers. We need more equipment. We need more EMS units. We need more training,” Turner said in September, after a southwest Houston shooting wounded nine. “You can’t keep lowering the property tax rate because of this revenue cap and expect the city to be fully equipped with all of the assets that are needed.”

I’m pretty sure there’s more than one person on Team Turner who is grinding their teeth at the “back to basics” usage, since that was very much not Turner’s campaign slogan. Be that as it may, the general formulation is correct. Turner spent a lot of time this year working on a pension deal, and what he does next is tied to his success at getting the necessary legislation passed to implement that deal. And if he is successful, then the rest of 2017 will largely be focused on amending the revenue cap. If he can get both of those things done, then the sky is the limit and anything he wants to do is on the table. If not, it isn’t fatal, but it does leave him stuck. How much time can he spend on other things if he still needs to work on getting these things done? I’m sure he’d rather not have to find out.

How likely is Turner to get the pension legislation through? I have no idea, but if there’s anyone in a position to do it, it’s Turner. This is one of those times when experience really matters. No guarantees, because the Lege doesn’t work that way, but if anyone knows how to navigate these waters, it’s Turner. I should note that the pension bills aren’t the only thing on the city’s legislative wish list for 2017. Most of the specific items are pretty narrow and wonky, but the overriding principles laid out in the first few pages will keep the lobbying team busy, primarily I fear on defense. But if you want to know what the city does and doesn’t want from Austin next year, there’s your reference guide.

One more thing:

[Bill] King, last year’s mayoral runner-up, said he is considering challenging Turner, depending on his health and how pension reform plays out.

“If he ends up not solving the pension problem – which he promised he would do – then I think somebody needs to step in and save the city from going bankrupt,” King said.

King, who would like to see Houston switch from defined benefit to defined contribution plans similar to 401(k)s, has gotten under the skin of Turner and his staff by sending regular email blasts criticizing the city, including on inauguration day, and holding occasional press conferences.

“The campaign is over, and the total focus should be on meeting the needs of all Houstonians in their moment of crisis,” the mayor tweeted in April, after King criticized the city’s flood response.

I get those emails, too. You can probably guess what my level of interest in them is. King is certainly able to be the next Ben Hall if he wants to – he’s got the money for it, and apparently the lack of anything better to do. The question is, what has Turner done so far to lose anyone’s support? Based on how things have gone so far, I’d say not much. But hey, keep hope alive.

Acevedo and Pena confirmed by Council

They’re officially official now.


City Council unanimously confirmed Art Acevedo and Samuel Peña as Houston’s new police and fire chiefs Wednesday, clearing the way for the mayoral appointees to take office.

Acevedo, Austin’s former police chief, is poised to take the helm of the city’s police department Thursday, while El Paso Fire Chief Samuel Peña is set to assume local duties in mid-December.

Acevedo said he intends to adopt a model he calls “relational policing.”

“Every person that we contact as members of the Houston Police Department – whether it’s a 911 operator, crime scene tech, police officer on the front line, the detectives – is an opportunity to create a relationship,” Acevedo said. “It’s about the way you treat people. I think you start with transparency. You respect people. … You engage the community. Because the police is not us or them. We are the community.”


Peña, 47, said he looks forward to working with the Houston Fire Department to “make this community the great community that it should be.”

“It’s not lost on me the trust and responsibility that you guys have placed on me,” Peña told Turner and the council. “I pledge my whole loyalty to the Houston Fire Department and the city of Houston. And what I ask from the Houston firefighters is that they pledge their loyalty to this community, as well.”

See here for the background. Both have some challenges ahead of them, and I look forward to seeing how they tackle them. Welcome aboard, gentlemen. KUHF and the Press have more.

Mayor Turner picks Austin PD Chief for HPD

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

In a sweeping announcement, Mayor Sylvester Turner named four new department directors and a reappointment Thursday. Pending City Council confirmation, Art Acevedo of Austin will assume the position of police chief and El Paso’s Samuel Pena will take over the fire department.

“Acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo and Acting Fire Chief Rodney West have performed exemplary in dealing with some challenges and we are indebted to them for their service,” said Mayor Turner. “I had said all along that once we reached solution to our pension problems, I would move quickly to fill key positions. This is the team that will carry us into 2017 and beyond. We are going to build upon the successes of 2016 and be even more transformative, innovative and responsive.”

Acevedo has served as Austin’s police chief since 2007. His 30 years of law enforcement experience began as a field patrol officer in East Los Angeles. In Austin, he oversaw a department with more than 2,400 sworn officers and support personnel and a $370 million annual budget. He joined the department at a time when relations with minorities were strained due to questionable police shootings. He has been credited for a commitment to police legitimacy, accountability and community policing and engagement. His accomplishments include creating a special investigative unit to criminally investigate officer involved shootings and a new disciplinary matrix. Acevedo holds a Bachelor of Science in Public Administration from the University of La Verne, is a graduate of the FBI’s National Executive Institute and speaks fluent Spanish.

Pena joined the El Paso Fire Department in 1995 and then rose through the ranks to the position of fire chief, which he has held since 2013. He has previous experience as a fire fighter, paramedic, media spokesperson, advanced medical coordinator, Combined Search and Rescue Team member, Hazardous Materials & Special Rescue Task Force member and academy training chief. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice and a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of Texas at El Paso. He is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force where he served for four years as an air control specialist. Like Acevedo, he is fluent in Spanish.

The mayor also announced that he has selected Judge Elaine Marshall to be the new presiding judge of Houston Municipal Courts, Tom McCasland as the permanent director of the Department of Housing and Community Development and the reappointment of Phyllis Frye to another term as a municipal court judge.

The Statesman was the first to report on Acevedo’s hiring. Here’s the reaction from Austin:

During his tenure in Austin, Acevedo has flirted with several other major Texas cities, including Fort Worth, Dallas and San Antonio. Thirteen months ago, he withdrew from San Antonio’s hiring process and received a 5 percent pay raise and a new separation agreement should he be fired in Austin.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler released the following statement about Acevedo: “Houston is getting a world-class police chief. Chief Acevedo has made our community safer and closer and he is trusted and much loved by so many. Austin is losing a moral and joyous leader and I’m losing a friend.

“Losing Art Acevedo is a huge deal and replacing him will be a daunting task, in part because he gave so much of himself to his job and his community. But Austin is a safe city with a strong police force and we’ll have talented applicants to take his place. We’ll shortly have a new city manager and a new police chief, and this gives Austin a unique opportunity to enter a new era in our history.”

Here’s the Chron story, which is from before the afternoon press conference announcing the hires, and thus doesn’t have anything that isn’t in the press release or the Statesman story. All appointments need to be confirmed by Council, and they will be on the agenda for the November 30 meeting.

Fire Chief was the other big hire. Here’s the Chron story for that.

El Paso Fire Chief Samuel Peña has been tapped as Houston’s new fire chief, replacing Interim Fire Chief Rodney West, sources said Thursday.

Peña, 45, has led El Paso’s fire department for three years.

If approved by City Council, he would come to Houston in the midst of a contentious fire pension negotiation and as firefighters continue to voice concern about aging facilities and calls for new equipment.

Houston’s fire union stressed those challenges Thursday while urging Peña to stand up to City Hall officials.

“Job one for Chief Peña will be to better balance his obligations at City Hall against those he will have to the 4,000 firefighters who have earned his support,” the union said in a statement. We urge Chief Peña to challenge City Hall to commit to the ‘shared sacrifice’ imposed upon us by sensibly addressing the declining condition of the (Houston Fire Department) fleet and facilities, a too-often adversarial command staff and stalled contract negotiations.”

That was also pre-press conference. I’m sure we’ll get reactions and quotes shortly. The Austin Chronicle, the Press, Texas Leftist, Trib have more.

UPDATE: Here’s the updated Chron story:

Acevedo and Peña, who head smaller departments, said they look forward to the challenge of leading Houston’s public safety agencies, both the fifth largest in the nation.

“I am proud to be here in the city of Houston, and remember that criminals are the only ones who need to be afraid of the police,” Acevedo said in Spanish. “If you’re a victim … or a witness, come forward. We’re at your service.”

Peña comes from a department that responds to about 76,000 calls a year. In Houston he will see about four times that number and Thursday he said he anticipated a steep learning curve.

“I’m going to be drinking from the proverbial fire hose for a while, learning the processes and really getting to know the command staff, sitting down with the associations and the rank and file to find out what their priorities are, from their perspective, before we make any wholesale changes,” the 47-year-old said.


Acevedo, 52, inherits the difficult task of policing a rapidly growing city more than twice Austin’s size with a police staffing shortage and a tight city budget.

The city also is seeking to gain legislative approval for a pension reform deal that already prompted three top Houston Police Department chiefs to file retirement paperwork.

Acevedo asked the agency to have his back.

“I can just say this to the men and women of the Houston police department: I love cops. I love policing,” Acevedo said. “Just give me the chance to show you what the mayor saw in me.”

Phil Hilder, a criminal defense attorney and member of the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board, welcomed the selection of Austin’s chief.

“He has a very progressive history at the Austin Police Department and has been very responsive to community concerns and is open-minded to innovations and new ideas in policing,” said Hilder, who has also served as a federal prosecutor. “Policing is moving in a rapid direction, embracing new technologies which will require somebody at the helm who will embrace those innovations, in terms of training and to keep the community informed about where policing is going.”

Acevedo was known as an outgoing, progressive leader in Austin but weathered internal criticism over his handling of police shootings. Most recently, he fired the officer involved in the fatal shooting of unarmed 17-year-old David Joseph. The police union accused Acevedo of an “unjust and politically motivated firing.”

McClelland, Houston’s former police chief, warned of the obstacles the outsider could face.

“With community relations on the forefront, any outside police chief is going to have significant challenges … learning all the internal operations and managers and who are your talented folks in your organizations,” he said.

“He certainly was the right fit in Austin. …That kind of liberal progressive town, I think he was a good fit [there]. Houston is not Austin – we know that. How well he’ll do here, I don’t know.”

U.S. Marshal Gary Blankinship, a former Houston police officer and union president who has known Acevedo for a long time, described him as “very personable,” but also a resolute manager.

Acevedo’s police officers and federal marshals worked together in the recent arrest in Houston of one of three men charged with the attempted assassination of Austin District Judge Julie Kocurek in November 2015, Blankinship said.

“He’s very qualified to be the police chief of Houston – I wish him well and look forward to working with him,” said Blankinship.

Welcome to Houston, gentlemen. I too wish you all the best in your new jobs.

City loses in appeal against firefighters’ pension statute

Here’s a pension fund-related litigation update for you.

Houston can’t overhaul a state-governed firefighter pension system that the mayor claims is pushing the city towards insolvency, a Texas appeals court ruled.

Houston sued the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund in January 2014, seeking a declaration that a state law setting how the fund is operated, and giving the city no control over the amount of its contributions, is unconstitutional.

The city paid $350 million in pensions to firefighters, police and city workers in 2015, but its unfunded pension debt is $6 billion and growing.

A state judge sided with the fund in May 2014 and granted it summary judgment.

The city appealed, pressing its argument that the subject state law, passed in 1997, gives too much power to the pension fund’s board that is comprised of a majority of firefighters who are beneficiaries of the fund, and thus are inherently self-interested in maximizing firefighter pension benefits to the detriment of the city’s financial health.

The 10-member board is made up of six active or retired firefighter fund members who are elected by other firefighters, the mayor or an appointed representative of the mayor, the city treasurer and two citizens who are elected by the other trustees.

Houston claimed on appeal the state law violates the separation-of-powers principle in the Texas Constitution by delegating authority to a nonlegislative entity, the fund board.

The city cited Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Fund v. Lewellen. In that case, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that a foundation established by the Texas Legislature to exterminate boll weevils that were threatening to destroy the Texas cotton industry unconstitutionally gave too much authority to the foundation to tax private farmers to pay for weevil killing.

But the 14th Texas Court of Appeals decided Thursday that the boll weevil foundation is fundamentally different from the pension fund board because the board includes public employees.

“The purpose of that [boll weevil eradication] foundation may be construed as protecting a private industry from a blight, albeit with an indirect benefit to the public. In contrast, eight of the 10 trustees of the fund’s board are current or retired public employees…We would have difficulty classifying the board as a private entity when the mayor and city treasurer also serve as trustees in order to administer benefits to public employees,” Judge John Donovan wrote for a three-judge panel.

The panel also rebuffed Houston’s argument that the state law is unconstitutional because it only applies to incorporated municipalities with a population of at least 1.6 million and a fully paid fire department. Houston is the only Texas city that qualifies.

The city claims the special treatment violates the Texas Constitution’s ban on the Legislature meddling in local affairs.

But the appeals court agreed with the fund’s contentions that Houston is uniquely dangerous for firefighters compared to the other four big cities in Texas—Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and El Paso—so sweeter pension terms are necessary to attract and retain firefighters.

See here for the background, and here for the ruling. There have been multiple lawsuits related in one way or another to the firefighters’ pension fund; it’s hard to keep track of them all because they go multiple months without any news. The city could appeal this to the Supreme Court, but I don’t think they will, for two reasons. One is that I doubt they’ll get a different outcome, and two is that while this lawsuit was filed by the Parker administration, the Turner administration has a much less contentious relationship with the firefighters, and is working on a pension fund deal with them. It would be a show of good faith, if not a bargaining chip, for the city to quit pursuing this lawsuit, and seek to settle or drop any other ongoing litigation for which the HFRRF is an opponent. The Chron story says the city “continues to believe the state statute is unconstitutional because it allows the firefighters’ pension fund to determine contribution levels”, and that the city intends to “seek further review”. We’ll see what happens.

UPDATE: Woke up this morning, and the following announcement was in my inbox: “Mayor Turner will unveil preliminary points of understanding with the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund, the Houston Police Officers’ Pension System and the Houston Employees Pension System. The proposed plan will form the basis for a package of pension reforms that will be submitted for approval to the governing boards of the pension systems, City Council and the state legislature.” That’s happening today at 2 PM. So maybe this won’t have any effect on the negotiations one way or the other.

What do we want of a Fire Department study?

Whatever it is, this wasn’t it.

A much-anticipated analysis of fire department operations essentially was dead on arrival Friday after it failed to identify cost savings and called for a multitude of investments, including three new fire stations.

Mayor Sylvester Turner promised to conduct another review of the $500 million department to supplement the $297,000 study, which came in roughly $1.7 million under budget.

“You get what you pay for,” Turner said. “I view this report as a starting point for what we need to learn more about. There will certainly be a second, more critical review by my own administration.”

The city solicited bids for the report two years ago amid concerns about resource allocation and a staffing shortage that increased overtime costs.

The 178-page report by Facets Consulting praised the Houston Fire Department’s “high degree of dedication” and took aim at budget cuts made after the 2008 recession It also criticized Houston’s voter-approved cap on property tax collections.


City Council’s public safety and homeland security committee is slated to take up the report Wednesday, and Turner said he expects the group to prepare an analysis by March.

Obviously, Mayor Turner is looking for a report that outlines ways that the city can save money on the fire department. Any deal involving pensions (for all three funds) is going to involve the city paying more in some places, so it needs to find savings elsewhere. This report outlined a bunch of ways in which the city could do more and do better, and I have no doubt many of those recommendations have a lot of merit. What they don’t have is a way to pay for them. Maybe someday later, but not now. That’s just how it is these days.

Pension reform update

Things are happening.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Longtime firefighters pension fund chairman Todd Clark has retired from the department and resigned his post, a move City Hall observers interpret as perhaps the clearest sign yet that Mayor Sylvester Turner’s push for pension reform may succeed.

The municipal pension also is in upheaval, having bought out former director Rhonda Smith’s contract for nearly $438,700 and replaced her with David Long, a controversial figure who played a central role in the 2001 benefit changes that created the city’s pension funding shortfall, a gap that has now reached $5.6 billion.

The mayor last week sidestepped questions about whether Clark or Smith’s departures were harbingers of reform, saying the results of his negotiations matter more than who is at the table. Though sources with knowledge of the talks say they have intensified in recent months, Turner gave a cautious assessment of his progress.

“We’re having conversations, and I think the conversations have been constructive,” Turner said. “This is not an easy subject matter, and I’m under no illusions. I mean, it’s hard. It’s hard. Since 2002, no previous mayor has resolved it, especially on a long-term basis. But we shall see. I’ll take it one day at a time.”


Sources with knowledge of the talks said Clark was upset when he put forward a reform proposal earlier this year that went further than any of his previous offers, only to have Turner seek further changes.

Seeking more optimistic news from Austin, Clark then met with state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. But the sources said Clark came away from that discussion having concluded that hoping for the best in Austin during next year’s legislative session would be even riskier.

Confronted with the choice of agreeing to unpalatable changes or risking an even less palatable outcome in Austin, the sources said, Clark chose to step down.

Huffman said she learned of Clark’s retirement, which came shortly after their meeting, only when he announced it publicly. But Huffman said in her meetings with all three pension boards she has urged them to strike a deal with Turner.

“I’ve made it clear to them that I strongly urge them to sit down and to work this out, that the politics-as-usual was not going to work and that it was only fair to their members and to their people that are going to retire one day that this system be sound,” Huffman said. “I was firm about it and will continue to be firm about it, because they have to work it out.”

Huffman said she has tried to act as an arbiter, saying she would prefer the funds “fix what they have” rather than switching to a 401(k)-style system abhorred by workers as much as it is loved by some conservative lawmakers.

“There is a feeling that there will be good-faith efforts to get something done. The tough part, of course, is always bringing along the membership of these groups,” she said. “I understand that’s the tough part, but they need to, given the facts – and the facts are that the system is unsustainable. It hurts to fix it, but it would hurt a lot more if the system were to collapse.”

Todd Clark was a strong defender of the status quo for the HFRRF, so his departure could indeed be an indicator of how the wind is blowing these days. That probably suggests that the firefighters themselves are – ready for? resigned to? some other verb? – change as well. Mayor Turner seems to keep things like this close to his vest, so we’ll know more when he’s ready to make an announcement. In the meantime, this is your Conventional Wisdom Update for the week.

Where are the chiefs?

People are beginning to wonder.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Six months after Houston’s top cop retired and 10 months after Houston’s fire chief resigned to take another job, both departments remain without permanent chiefs, prompting concerns that public safety could suffer during the transition to permanent leadership.

The delays are already among the longest in decades at a time when community pressures are mounting on local agencies.

“We need leadership right now, and no one wants to make any moves until a chief is named,” one longtime police investigator complained recently.

Acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo, a Houston Police Department veteran, has led the agency since Mayor Sylvester Turner named her to the interim post in mid-February. Acting Fire Chief Rodney West has been at the helm since before Turner took office in January.

Both Montalvo and West are reportedly interested in the positions.

City officials say the administration has been occupied with passing the city’s budget, dealing with historic flooding and responding to the high-profile murder of an 11-year-old boy in north Houston earlier this year and the recent, controversial shooting by police of an African-American man in south Houston.

“My preference would be to have permanent leadership for the departments to depend on and move forward with,” said Council Member Brenda Stardig, chair of the City Council’s public safety committee. “We have to prioritize and take care of the citizens and public safety.”

Turner’s office has remained tight-lipped about the searches.

“Nothing has changed. The mayor is working on his timetable,” city spokeswoman Janice Evans said in an email. “In the meantime, both HPD and HFD are operating well. Both Chief Montalvo and Chief West meet regularly with the mayor so that he is aware of what is going on in the departments. His concern is about getting the job done rather than the personalities of who is making sure the job gets done.”

The story goes on to note that while Mayor Turner is taking longer to name HPD and HFD chiefs than what we are used to, it’s not out of line for similar appointments in other big cities. I can’t speak to how any of this affects the internal dynamics of either organization, but at least for HPD there are some big issues involving things like recent shootings of civilians and how body cameras are being used for which it would be nice to get some clear direction. It’s better to be right slow than to be wrong fast, so as long as Mayor Turner gets the right people in place in not too much longer, all should be fine. The Mayor clearly isn’t going to be rushed, so we may as well wait till he’s ready to make his choices.

Ambulances and ERs

Very interesting story about the overuse of ambulances in Houston and how the city is trying to deal with it.

But in truth little works in a system that has been broken for years. Over the past generation, patients began to see emergency rooms as doctor’s offices, taking ambulances to get there.

It’s the most expensive ride to the most expensive kind of medical care in the world.

An ambulance trip costs at least $1,000. Just walking through the ER doors adds another grand and a half.

More troubling is a recent study by the University of Texas’ School of Public Health that showed 40 percent of patients streaming into Harris County’s overburdened ERs don’t need to be there; either their condition is not urgent or they are using the ER for something that can be or should have already been handled by a primary-care doctor or clinic.

The reasons behind this shift are not fully understood, buried somewhere in a tangle of public misperceptions, lack of access to primary care and habit.


Last year in Houston, 318,630 calls to 911 got routed to the fire department, with medical calls outstripping fires by nearly seven times. About 80 percent resulted in trips to the hospital. It is not known how many were true emergencies, but one indicator is how often lights and sirens were used en route to the hospital. The best guess is more than half are not urgent, fire officials say.

The result has created a crisis, especially for public hospitals. At Harris Health System, there were 144,891 ER cases between March 2014 and February. Of those, 61.5 percent of patients were indigent or uninsured.

“It’s unsustainable,” says Dr. David Persse.

He has seen all sides. In the 1980s, he worked as an EMT and paramedic in Buffalo, N.Y. He then went to Georgetown University to study emergency medicine. He came to Houston in 1996 and is now physician director of Emergency Medical Services for the Houston Fire Department and head of Houston’s Public Health Authority.

Six months ago, he helped launch a first-of-its kind project that had been percolating for years. It is called ETHAN, for Emergency Tele-Health and Navigation, a common-sense concept that mashes EMT tradition with emergency-room triage and wraps it in modern technology.

When a fire truck or ambulance arrives on a 911 call, a quick assessment is done. If the patient appears critical, he or she is transported. But if the complaint does not seem to rise to an emergency, a doctor trained in emergency medicine is called to talk to the patient by video chat on a specialized tablet.

The doctor searches troubled voices, inconsistent stories and the grainy images for clues. If the condition could be handled by a primary care physician or at a clinic, the doctor makes the appointment on the spot and arranges city-paid transportation by cab – a sliver of the cost of an ambulance. If the patient still wants to go to the ER, the ETHAN doctor has the power to insist they go by cab or find another ride.

Not only does this cut costs, it gets ambulance crews back into service faster.

Since the December launch, there have been about 1,000 ETHAN calls. By some estimates, it has already saved the city $1 million.

Once patients are in the ETHAN system, they are contacted by a public health nurse or counselor for a follow-up home visit to make sure they have a doctor and keep their appointments. Living conditions are assessed to see if other types of assistance are needed. The goal is to keep people from returning to the ER.

There’s more, so read the whole thing. I suspect a big portion of this is lack of access to primary care, which is undoubtedly related to lack of insurance for many people. Cities and counties are left picking up the tab for that, which can be laid at the feet of our Governor and Legislature. Still, even in a context where we had Medicaid expansion and broader insurance coverage, there would be a need for this. It’s a smart idea, and I hope it continues to pay off.

The Memphis pension cutting experience

In discussions about Houston’s pension liabilities, the city of Detroit is often trotted out as an analogy and cautionary tale. There’s another city that may be a more accurate comparison, and it’s offering an illustration right now of what might happen if things proceed as many candidates for local office and the Houston Chronicle would like, and that’s Memphis.

Many states and cities are facing pushback from workers as they seek cutbacks on pension entitlements to existing employees—not just new workers or retirees—as they try to control their budgets and fill pension gaps. But Memphis is particularly notable because workers have moved beyond rhetoric and into action. More than 250 police and firefighters have quit and new recruits are proving difficult to attract, after Memphis opted to end its traditional defined-benefit pension and cycle a portion of retirement benefits for many current employees next year into a 401(k)-style account.


In Memphis, Mayor A C Wharton, Jr. said a widening retirement gap in his city left him with “no other option” than to trim guaranteed payments from an existing pool of employees. Obligations soared to $554 million as of Dec. 31, from a surplus of $94.1 million just six years before.

The Memphis pension’s investments were pummeled during the financial crisis, with its mid-2008 assets of $2.2 billion plummeting by 18% in a year to $1.8 billion. Its funded ratio sunk during that time from 104.5%—a surplus of assets—to 79.8%.

“We couldn’t invest our way out of this,” said Brian F. Collins, the Memphis finance director, who oversees the city pension’s investments.

Some 675 police officers, out of a uniformed force of about 1,300, took a sick day in early July to protest the proposed cuts. After a wrenching political debate, the City Council voted in December to end a defined-benefit plan common among public employers for more than 40% of its 4,100 employees.

In its place, the city installed a so-called hybrid system that moves a portion of worker retirement funds into a 401(k)-style account starting in June 2016. The changes affect workers with 7½ years of tenure or less. Memphis long ago opted out of Social Security, and the pension represents the sole retirement benefits for city employees.

Labor union representatives say they are preparing a lawsuit challenging the overhaul. The mayor said Memphis needs to attract more employers and the city’s poor fiscal health was an impediment.

“Defined-benefit pensions plans are like the dinosaurs now—they’re a dying breed,” said Mr. Wharton, in an interview from his seventh-floor office overlooking the Mississippi River. His retirement benefits with the city won’t be affected by the new changes.

Roughly 3% of the 1,500-person fire department quit their positions and dozens more retired last year amid mounting concerns about how the pension changes would affect them, according to the firefighters’ union. Both the fire and police departments are 10% below their desired staffing levels, according to union leaders, and recruiting efforts to replenish those ranks have failed to meet targets.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with the comments left here by Steven Houston, who has had much to say about the pension issue. Steven’s main point is that the salaries Houston pays to HPD and HFD are low – in some cases, quite low – compared to other Texas cities. (This is also true for other municipal employees.) Pension benefits, which are tied to one’s salary level and which are really just deferred salary payments, make up some of that gap. Cutting pension benefits is therefore largely equivalent to cutting salaries and would have a very similar effect on Houston’s ability to attract and retain HPD and HFD staff. That remains true even if, as everyone is promising, any new less-generous “pension” system were only to be imposed on new employees. This should be obvious – jobs that pay less are inherently less attractive. (See the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and its ongoing prison guard shortage for a close-to-home example of that phenomenon.) I don’t know about you, but I haven’t heard much from the cut-the-pensions chorus about the likelihood of this effect, and what if anything they would do about it.

Having said that, there is another factor to consider:

Despite fewer employees, a city spokeswoman said service levels at the fire and police departments are largely unaffected.

That may well be spin, but there are objective ways to measure such things – crime rates and response times, for example. The WSJ story didn’t explore any of that, but it’s worth pursuing. Crime rates continue to be down nationally. A large number of arrests in Texas are for drug offenses, often minor drug offenses, for which there is a push in the Legislature to reduce penalties or even decriminalize them. There are fewer fires these days, thanks to better construction codes and safety mechanisms. We know that in Houston, the vast majority of HFD calls are for emergency medical services, not fires. Maybe a reduction in overall staffing isn’t such a terrible thing. Of course, right now we don’t really know what our staffing levels for HPD and HFD “should” be. There are a lot of issues relating to public safety that are not being addressed right now. When are we going to get around to that?

Police officers’ pension fund speaks up

The firefighters’ pension fund is the one that gets all the attention, but it’s not the only one the city is responsible for. The Houston Police Officers Pension System (HPOPS) has sent a letter to the city reminding it that they have a deal that restricts what the city can request from the Legislature.

Police pension leaders, in a March 11 letter to Mayor Annise Parker and City Council members, asked for documents proving that city officials are complying with a provision of the 12-year deal, approved in 2011, that requires the city to join the fund in opposing legislation that would affect the terms of the agreement.

The letter named no particular official, but it would be hard to miss the recent actions – and accompanying press releases – of mayoral candidates and City Councilmen Steve Costello and Oliver Pennington, who back a bill filed by Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, that would grant the city local authority over its three pension plans. Today, the plans are controlled in Austin, where lawmakers have stymied repeated attempts at reform. The rising cost of pensions has caused stress at City Hall for more than a decade; Houston is paying $353 million into its pensions this fiscal year, almost twice what it spends on trash pickup, parks and libraries combined.

In writing the mayor, police pension officials also sought a meeting, which they got Friday morning. City Attorney Donna Edmundson said the gathering was cordial and brief, and served simply to confirm that pension leaders and the Parker administration view the agreement similarly and will thus jointly oppose Murphy’s bill, despite the mayor having sought related legislation in years past.

The key, Edmundson said, is that when the agreement refers to “the city” it refers to the executive branch – in this case, the mayor, her top staff and legislative coordinators – and not individual council members in the legislative branch.

“Council member Costello has gone to Austin. But in those trips to Austin, he’s not representing the city of Houston, and they just wanted to be clear on that and make sure we’re on the same page,” Edmundson said. “We can’t stop an individual from going to Austin and expressing his or her views or the views of his or her constituents. They have a First Amendment right.”

Police pension representatives confirmed Edmundson’s characterizations, but declined further comment.

On the fund’s website, however, chairman Terry Bratton on Friday posted that he had met with Parker and that their plans aligned.

“The agreement provides that the city and HPOPS (Houston Police Officers’ Pension System) will work together to oppose bills adversely impacting HPOPS. The mayor is aware of the provision and intends to honor the contract,” Bratton wrote.

Just a reminder that there’s more than one dimension to the pension issue, and that if you think Mayor Parker should be supporting Rep. Murphy’s bill, the 2011 agreement with HPOPS – which as the story notes, both CMs Costello and Pennington voted for – says she cannot. Mayoral candidates Costello and Pennington are free to do what they want, but that agreement with HPOPS will bind them going forward if one of them gets elected.

Meanwhile, the chair of the firefighters’ pension fund sent a letter to the Chronicle to point out a few things regarding the recent deal.

Regarding “Missed chances” (Page B8, Friday), last August, during a special subcommittee meeting of the Houston City Council’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee, several members of City Council challenged the board of the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund (HFRRF) to develop an alternative proposal to Mayor Annise Parker’s plan for newly hired firefighters.

In response to this challenge, HFRRF developed a proposal that addressed several issues. Primarily, it maintained the hard-earned and promised benefits of our active and retired firefighters. Additionally, it addressed the City’s contributions needs during the next three fiscal years and avoids costly litigation for all the parties.

Throughout the months of August and September, members of the HFRRF board, including myself, and staff members personally met with almost all members of the City Council and reviewed our proposal.

During these meetings, each of these members were advised that HFRRF was participating in discussions with the mayor about the proposal. Most members expressed encouragement that we had voluntarily engaged in a discussion with the mayor and hoped that some form of agreement might be reached.

Over the next several months, we participated in many meetings in the mayor’s office. Included in these meetings were the mayor, her staff and some members of Council. The mayor also attended two public board meetings at the HFRRF office.

Traditionally, when two parties attempt to come to mutually agreeable terms, each side receives some benefit for their considerations to the other party.

I believe that both the HFRRF and the mayor recognize that the result of this agreement is a reasonable solution, and it addressed the challenge initiated during the August subcommittee meeting.

Todd Clark, chairman of HFRRF

Here’s a post about that Council meeting in August. Looking for that also reminded me that news of the deal was first reported in September. Clearly, a lot of people, myself included, had forgotten about that. The deal that was agreed to this month doesn’t look all that different from what was proposed six months ago. People may not like the deal, but no one can say they didn’t know about it.

Council’s pension meeting

It was about what you’d expect.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Many City Council members who attended a special meeting Friday to discuss Mayor Annise Parker’s controversial deal with the city’s firefighters pension called the gathering a success, despite two members walking out and breaking a quorum before a vote could be held to support or oppose the agreement.

The meeting’s unusual ending matched the unusual situation. Typically, the mayor alone calls City Council meetings and decides what items will appear on the agenda for a vote, a power that council members can subvert only by teaming up in a group of at least three to force a special meeting.

Council members C.O. Bradford, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig and Dave Martin did that last Monday, saying the council had been excluded as Parker negotiated the three-year agreement to lower the city’s costs and that the deal must be vetted publicly.

The unrealized vote would not have been binding because the council has no legal authority over the agreement, but organizers hoped the resolution would raise public awareness of the city’s pension situation and send a signal to the Legislature, which controls Houston’s three pension funds. State Sen. John Whitmire and mayoral candidate and state Rep. Sylvester Turner, both Houston Democrats, have agreed to carry the legislation in Austin.

“A vote would have sent a signal to the state Legislature, so I’m disappointed that we didn’t get the opportunity to express our opinion to the state,” said Martin, who opposes the deal, “but I thought the discussion was good, so I leave here pleased.”


Parker spokeswoman Janice Evans said the administration is moving forward on getting the deal passed in Austin, and stressed that the mayor has never claimed the agreement represents true pension reform.

“The meeting turned out as we thought it would … a lot of talking, but no new solutions offered and no new information presented,” Evans said.

See here for the background. The Wednesday Council meeting at which Mayor Parker presented the plan to Council could be characterized similarly. Of interest is that not only will there be a bill to enact the negotiated deal, but also one to give the city the kind of control over the pension fund that Mayor Parker had been pushing for before. From the press release that CM Costello sent out on Friday evening:

City of Houston At-Large Council Member Steve Costello was extremely instrumental in crafting House Bill 2608 which was filed today by State Representative Jim Murphy of Houston. Local control of pensions is key to the citizens of Houston. H.B. 2608 will allow the mayor and city council to directly negotiate with its pension plans to create the most beneficial structure for both taxpayers and retirees.

Council Member Costello has also written and distributed a letter to the local Houston delegation encouraging them to support the bill, local control and vote against the Parker/Turner plan.

“There’s no way for the city to pay our pension benefits as currently structured without severely limiting the city’s ability to provide basic city services to its citizens. Without showing real leadership and tackling the pension benefits themselves, the amount the city owes does not change,” Costello said.

“This bill will provide for a more sustainable and responsible pension program that is good for our city, our brave firefighters and Houston taxpayers. Fortunately, Representative Jim Murphy has filed H. B. 2608, and I am pleased to have played a key role in crafting a bill that actually moves us toward a solution,” according to Costello.

Costello continued, “I’m going to continue to fight hard for local control. The City must be able to fulfill our promise to our public safety and municipal employees in a way that is also fair to Houston taxpayers.”

There was no mention of a bill like this at the beginning of the session, when everyone seemed to want the city and the firefighters to work this out among themselves. It’s interesting to hear people like Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who was at the meeting and who expressed his support of Rep. Murphy’s bill, talk favorably of local control when he’s busy helping Greg Abbott eviscerate it elsewhere. Be that as it may, I guess this answers my question about what Costello thinks he can do differently than Mayor Parker – if he’s able to help get HB2608 to Abbott’s desk, it would be quite an accomplishment. The politics of this are going to be fascinating to watch, that’s for sure. I just hope that the Mayoral candidates that lobby for one bill or the other in Austin get equally and visibly involved in beating back the many bad bills out there.

Council meeting called to discuss firefighter pension deal

Some Council members are determined to discuss the deal Mayor Parker made with the firefighters’ pension fund.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Four City Council members have taken advantage of a rarely used provision in city law to call a special meeting Friday to discuss Mayor Annise Parker’s controversial deal with the city’s firefighter pension board that was announced last week.

Typically, the mayor alone controls what items appear on the council agenda to be voted on, a power that can be subverted only when a trio of council members teams up to call a meeting.

Council members C.O. Bradford, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig and Dave Martin did so Monday morning, with one more signer than was required. City officials said this appears to be the first time the legal maneuver has been used in Parker’s more than five-year tenure.

It’s not clear whether enough of the foursome’s colleagues will attend to muster a quorum, but the symbolism of the meeting is more significant than any action that could be taken, given that the group will simply consider registering support for or opposition to the pension deal.

Regardless, Parker’s liaison to council, William-Paul Thomas, said he will work against a quorum. Parker had said she would not put the deal to a council vote because it does not call for the expenditure of city funds.

The three-year agreement would see the city pay a projected $77 million less into the pension fund and see firefighters contribute an estimated $20 million more. Supporters call it a compromise that will free up city funds during a budget crunch, while critics call it a risky missed opportunity that will see $57 million less paid into the system without any changes to the cost of benefits.

Bradford said the aim of Friday’s meeting is for council to discuss the pension deal openly and to send a signal to Austin on the council’s view of the agreement. Firefighters’ pension benefits and the city’s contributions to the fund are controlled by the Legislature, and the mayor’s deal would need to pass in Austin to take effect.


Firefighters union president Alvin White – whose organization is a separate entity from the fire pension board – early Monday raised his own concerns, saying the union “is the only legally recognized entity authorized to negotiate Houston firefighters’ workplace rights, wages and benefits.” White said he was entering into talks with fire pension chairman Todd Clark to “protect our members’ rights” in the deal, which requires firefighters to contribute 12 percent of their pay toward their pensions, up from 9 percent today.

Those talks yielded progress Monday night, however, with White saying the resolution would allow the union the flexibility it needs to negotiate future contracts. Clark did not return a call for comment Monday; a pension spokeswoman said he was busy working to get the bill filed at the Legislature.

See here for the background. At least this gives me some idea what the fuss is about, since the net effect is that the fund will receive $57 million less in payments over the next three years. The fund is in good enough shape that these underpayments probably won’t cause any issues, but for obvious reasons this is not a sustainable approach. I don’t know what these members have in mind to discuss or what if anything they might be able to accomplish, but I see no reason not to let them have their meeting. Maybe they’ll come up with some good questions to ask, or maybe they’ll agree with the Mayor’s judgment. Let them meet and make up their own minds. Campos has more.

King makes his official entry

Add Bill King to the “made his official announcement” list.

Bill King

In the middle of a noisy, torn-up west Houston street that he said epitomized Houston’s crumbling roads, Bill King launched his campaign for mayor Monday morning, pledging to return the city “back to basics.”

King, a former Houston Chronicle columnist and a mayor of Kemah, pledged to tackle the issue on which he long sounded the alarm – pension reform.

“There is no pathway to financial stability for the City of Houston that does not lead through meaningful pension reform,” said King. “Anyone who tells you differently is either misinformed or is not telling you the truth.”

King recognized that trimming pension payouts is “an emotional and difficult” issue, but stressed that he does not support changes to current city employees’ benefits, just future employees.’

King also took a veiled shot at who is likely to be his main competitor for the votes of the center-right, business crowds: Councilman Stephen Costello, who is tied to a road improvement plan called “ReBuild Houston” that King derided as the “Rain Tax.”

“We cannot afford to wait another five or six years to rebuild our streets,” said King, standing in the median of S. Kirkwood Road. “It’s time that we rethink ReBuild Houston.”

As you know, King is not at the top of my candidate list. Nothing against the guy, as he is perfectly nice and adequately qualified, but we do not see eye to eye on enough issues that I can’t see him being my choice in November. A case in point here is his shot at ReBuild Houston. Putting aside my distaste for anyone that uses the term “rain tax”, if you don’t like it but you want to make fixing the streets a priority, what would you do instead? We all agree that fixing the streets will cost a lot of money. ReBuild Houston provides a funding mechanism for that. There are certainly issues with it, not the least of which is a lack of visibility, but what would you do instead? This was a question that the foes of the Renew Houston referendum never ever attempted to answer. They agreed with the problem, opposed the solution, and had no alternate plan of their own. So I’ll ask again: If this isn’t the answer, then what is? You have eight months to come up with something viable.

Now sure, I get that this was a campaign event, not a get-all-wonky-with-details event, but as I’ve said before, just about everyone running for Mayor this year has been running in one form or another for a long time. I’ve said what my priorities are. I don’t plan to be patient waiting for the Mayoral herd to start talking specifics. I’m not singling out King here – so far, no one has said anything that isn’t suitable for a bumper sticker. I’m saying I don’t plan to grade on a curve, or to cut any slack. Just tell me what you want to do, in enough detail that it makes sense, and we’ll go from there.

Anyway. King is in, and there are still more of these announcements to come. I’ve put the press release I received from the King campaign beneath the fold. On a tangential note, I see via Facebook that Chris Brown has announced his intent to run for Controller this year. Brown is Deputy Controller, and his name surfaced as a potential candidate a few weeks ago. He joins three other candidates so far – HCC Trustee Carroll Robinson, 2013 Controller candidate Bill Frazer, and former Council member Jew Don Boney. That Facebook photo is the only info I have on this, so it wasn’t worth a post on its own, thus the addendum here.


2015 Mayoral manifesto: Public safety


When I first started thinking about this series a couple of months ago, this section was all going to be about the budget. We’ve covered this ground before – public safety is about 65% of the total city budget, yet it’s always “off limits” for consideration when there are shortfalls. It’s always the rest of the budget that gets the axe when cuts have to be made. Politically, I doubt anyone thinks they can lose votes by being “for” public safety and against any cuts to it. I’m not advocating cuts, I’m advocating the same level of scrutiny and due diligence for the public safety budget as for the rest of the budget.

Just at an abstract level, it’s impossible to believe that a hundreds-of-millions of dollars budget involving thousands of people, hundreds of departments, and multiple layers of management could not be refined and made more efficient. Here in Houston we have the specific example of thousands of uninvestigated criminal cases, for which as far as I can tell there still hasn’t been a reckoning by HPD. Chief McClelland’s response has been to ask for more money to hire more officers. My response to that is that we need to know a lot more about how the money HPD gets now is being spent. Maybe we do need more cops, and maybe we do need to spend more money on HPD. But that can’t be the default answer. We need to know more about how things are being done now. Only then can we know what we should be doing differently.

Public safety includes the fire department as well, and HFD has its own issues. Twice in the last five years HFD has exceeded its budget due to greater than expected overtime expenditures, caused at least in part by the way vacation time is scheduled. As crime has gone down nationally, so have the number of fires. The vast majority of calls to HFD are EMT calls, not fire calls. As with HPD, it is fair to ask, are we making the best use of our resources, and getting the best value for our tax dollars? I want a Mayor who will not be afraid to ask those questions.

One place where there appears to be general consensus is with body cameras. Everybody wants them, and thanks to a grant from the District Attorney, we have a plan to outfit HPD, Sheriff’s deputies, and constables with them. This is great, but it’s a first step. What will be the rules for their usage? How accessible will the video data be, and who will have access to it? What will HPD’s discipline policy be towards officers who fail to use them properly? Do we have a plan to get cameras for Metro cops? Let’s hear some details.

The discipline policies and practices for HPD in general need a long, hard look. It’s very rare for officers to be punished for excessive force complaints, even in the face of overwhelming (and sometimes video) evidence. Between 2007 and 2012, according to HPD records, officers killed citizens in 109 shootings. Every killing was ruled justified. The process needs an overhaul, and more public involvement. I want to hear Mayoral candidates address these issues, and not just give me the same paeans and platitudes we’ve gotten in past campaigns.

Note that I haven’t said anything about pensions. I don’t see the need to, since we’re not going to be able to avoid hearing about them from the candidates. The issue is central to the candidacies of at least two of the hopefuls so far. What any of them might promise to do that Mayor Parker hasn’t already tried, especially given the lack of interest by the Legislature in getting involved, is an open question. I’m sure they’ll tell us something.

Everyone agrees that something needs to be done about the city’s criminal justice complex. Everyone also agrees that it will be hella expensive to do something about it. One possible way to reduce the cost might be to rent instead of repairing or rebuilding, but not everyone is happy with that option. Given that this is almost certainly an item that will wind up on the next Mayor’s to do list, it would be nice to know what they think the current Mayor should do about it.

Mayor Parker recently said that “we need a complete rethinking of the nation’s drug laws”. What do the Mayoral candidates think about that? Will they push for HPD to use its authority to write citations for low level drug offenses instead of making arrests?

It seems likely that some form of “sanctuary cities” legislation will be signed into law this session. That will require local police forces to inquire about the immigration status of someone detained or arrested by a police officer or risk losing state funds. Who among the Mayoral candidates will be willing to speak out against this? Will anyone promise to at least investigate the possibility of filing a federal lawsuit to overturn such a law if one is enacted?

Finally, there was a lot of talk in the 2009 Mayor’s race about getting the various law enforcement agencies that operate in and around Houston to work together better. There’s been some progress on this, most notably in the area of radio communications, but overall it’s been a low profile issue. Where do the current crop of candidates see room for improvement on this? To tie this back to an earlier point, one large police force in Houston that isn’t in line to get body cameras yet is the Metro police force. Do the candidates have an opinion about that?

One more of these entries to go. Let me know what you think.

Appeals court reverses ruling about pension retiree information

So much for that.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

A state district court’s 2013 ruling that Houston’s fire pension board must turn over detailed information on its retirees to help city officials better project future pension bills has been overturned on appeal.

Justices with the 1st Court of Appeals issued the opinion Tuesday, arguing that, in essence, state law protects the city’s ability to request information on its pensioners but not at the breadth and depth the city originally sought when it sued the pension fund in May 2012. At the time Mayor Annise Parker argued she needed better data to project future pension costs.

Todd Clark, chairman of the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund, cheered the ruling, and said the city has all the information it needs on retired firefighters.

“The city took a run at trying to convert the plain meaning of a statute providing for an independent audit into a license to rummage through a decade of pension members’ personal information,” Clark said. “Both taxpayer and pension resources were wasted by the city’s lawsuit.”

City Attorney Donna Edmundson said she and her staff still are reviewing the ruling and weighing the city’s options, which could include appealing the ruling or narrowing the city’s request for information.

Houston originally sought individual data on each retiree from 2000 forward, and later amended its request to target group data from that period. Edmundson said the ruling suggests state law may protect the city’s access to retiree information if it requests only group data dating back to only 2011.

“I think basically, on our part, we just need to go back in and refine our request a bit, just tweak it,” Edmundson said. “Obviously we’re reaching out to the firefighters trying to come to agreement on numerous issues. We’re just going to sit back on this for the time being since we do have other litigation pending, as well.”

Assistant City Attorney Judith Ramsey added that it was important for the city to pursue the case because state law requires Houston to audit its pension funds every five years, “and we felt that we needed the level of detail we originally asked for in order to do the kind of audit we were required to do.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the court’s opinion. Narrowing the request is probably the shorter path to some kind of resolution, though I suppose the firefighters could still appeal if the First Court of Appeals accepted a revised petition. I’m just guessing – if anyone knows better what the possible paths are, please leave a comment. Barring some kind of settlement agreement, which I would not bet on, I presume this will not be resolved by the end of the year, meaning that the next Mayor will inherit this. I wonder what legal strategy the various candidates would prefer to see Mayor Parker pursue. A statement from the HFRRF is beneath the fold.


Don’t look for a meet-and-confer bill in the Lege this year

Buried in this story about the city and the county preparing to play defense during the legislative session is this update on the state of relations between the city and the firefighters.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

In her first two sessions, Houston Mayor Annise Parker failed to gain traction with legislation that would grant the city meet-and-confer powers that give City Hall the legal authority to negotiate changes to the city’s fire pension system. And now that the city and fire pension board are engaged in what appears to be some introductory conversation, the topic already appears to be a non-starter in Austin.

In fact, the city may not even aggressively pursue a remedy in the Legislature unless local talks show signs of dissolving. That resonates with Harris lawmakers who have a clear message for City Hall: Solve this yourself.

“We’re not going to do anything or move anything that doesn’t have an agreement,” said Rep. Garnet Coleman, a senior Democrat who echoed half-a-dozen other area legislators that a meet-and-confer bill opposed by firefighters would languish. “That’s a dead bill no matter what.”

That does not mean that concerns over the city’s unfunded liabilities are fading. Supporters of pension reform characterized the current discussions between the city as healthy and are expressing hope that they could yield a solution the Legislature would never produce.

“This issue is fraught with political risk for elected officials,” said Bob Harvey, CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, which supports pension reform. “They’re more than willing to give this back to the city if they see any signs at all that the city is willing to take it on.”

I had no idea that the city and the pension board were talking. I always thought one of the sticking points from the city’s perspective is that the pension board didn’t have to talk to them. They got to make their own determination about things like cost of living adjustments, which was one of the things the city had been trying to get a say in, legislatively or otherwise. I’m not sure what led to this conversation, but it’s an encouraging sign. If nothing else, if they can come to an agreement, I’ll never have to listed to Mayoral candidates or newspaper editorial boards talk about pension reform again. I’d be happy to send some pizzas to the negotiations room if that will help facilitate such an outcome.

Firefighter pension board makes an offer to the city

This was unexpected.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The trustees of Houston’s firefighter pension, who for years have fought the mere mention of changes to benefits as Houston’s enormous pension burden has continued to grow, now are shopping a compromise proposal.

Fire pension leaders say they simply are trying to save the city money as it approaches several years of deep budget deficits.

Reaction to the plan is mixed, however, with skeptics viewing it as a shrewd political maneuver aimed at avoiding broader reforms with an offer of modest savings, and others inclined to applaud any dialogue as progress.

The trustees’ alternative would not touch current or future firefighters’ benefits, but would have them contribute 12 percent of their paychecks into the pension fund, up from 9 percent now. The proposal also would change the way assets in the fund are valued, dropping the amount the city would need to contribute if investment returns are strong – as they have been in recent years – and increasing the city’s costs if returns are sluggish.

The fire pension board projects its plan – which assumes annual investment returns of 8.5 percent and yearly 3 percent raises for firefighters – would save the city $82 million over three years, and nearly $500 million in the next two decades.

Board Chairman Todd Clark would not discuss the details, citing ongoing talks, but said his team is “meeting with the mayor to come up with a proposal that will protect new hires and help the city with their budget issues.”

Mayor Annise Parker called the trustees’ idea “a pleasant surprise” on their willingness to talk.

“The offer from the pension is for individual firefighters to contribute more of their take-home pay toward their pension. That’s a very generous offer and we are appreciative, but it reflects no true pension reform,” the mayor said. “So, we countered back with the things we’ve been talking about since the beginning of my administration, things like caps on cost of living adjustments, the ability to have meet and confer.”

Interesting. The surprise is that they made any offer at all to the city, which has not been their strategy lately. As we know, the city has no leverage over the firefighters’ pension fund, and the the board’s position has been that the city needs to meet their obligations to them. I don’t know if this was motivated by the recent proposal by Mayor Parker to implement a different pension plan for new hires to HFD or by something else, but it’s worth seeing if this goes anywhere. What do you think?