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.

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2 Responses to Council’s pension meeting

  1. Steven Houston says:

    Good call Charles; local control only suits some when it suits them. The other aspect of local control for many of them is “who has the actual control”? In the case of the Mayor easing upcoming budget crunches by making a deal with the HFD pension board, some on Council don’t like that the issue isn’t under THEIR control. I am sure that any one of them, if elected mayor, would lose interest in changing the city charter to weaken their personal power.

    Another aspect of “local control” CM Costello might want to remember from last summer; his pet project involving the “rain tax/drainage fee” was raided of $31 million under the guise of “local control” just like everyone said would happen. As I recall, he was not too happy with local control at the time. Magnify that tenfold and see why many are finding the promises of local control to fall far short of the realities.

    Local control is why city finances are in the shape they are in, term limits giving politicians no incentive to spend responsibly. The suggestion that HFD’s pension is so out of line with the times and by itself able to sink the city into bankruptcy is crazy, their double digit returns most years and inherent solvency directly proportional to the amount of “local control” city politicians have over it.

    The police pension had local control instituted over it and what happened: benefits were cut tremendously and their system is no better off today than ten years ago (about 80% funded). The municipal pension was another victim of local control, also giving up huge amounts of benefits and now reportedly hovers around the 61% funded mark. Did local control inspire Houston mayors and council members to give huge pay raises and benefit increases to result in under-funding pensions? No, just the opposite, police pay starting off $26k/yr behind Austin until a month ago, fireman pay showing even larger disparities.

    And the pension hawk cowards are unwilling to come out with what they really want, huge cuts to employee compensation in order to spend money on other things, most communities valuing public safety employees more than that. I’d like to hear what they SPECIFICALLY would like to do to all three pensions in terms of how much they are willing to spend or exactly what benefits they would provide to newcomers, keeping in mind that even the pension hawks readily admit that changing only those new to the plans will not have a very big impact on future city finances. If they want to revert new employees to a 403b contribution plan, how much are they wanting the city portion to be, knowing full well it won’t be anything close to what other big cities contribute?

    Houston is a low tax city in most ways but that doesn’t mean you want cut rate services. As such, I implore people to look at the other 90% of the city’s total budget to find the waste, the contracts written by vendors so only they can successfully bid, and the way priorities are handled that a small part of the budget has to be vilified in order to distract those unwilling to read the city budget and/or pension deals firsthand. If Houston pays someone $45k a year while Austin pays $72k with better benefits throughout a career, the money is going someplace else in my opinion. Can all city streets be restored from ground up in a short period of time? No, but neither can the excesses of the past be resolved or the neglect of elected politicians like Costello, Bradford, Paul Bettencourt, and others.

  2. Steven Houston says:

    Of interest to local political watchers is a letter to the editor from Todd Clark, the head of the HFD pension system. Draw your own conclusions but council members present at the meeting now claiming faux surprise over the deal made sure could lose face in any debate. Just Sayin’
    Reasonable solution

    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

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