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Terry Bratton

Pension progress report

Our favorite subject, back in the news.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner and the leaders of the city’s three pension boards made clear to a visiting group of state lawmakers on Monday that they agree a fix to the city’s growing pension burden must be found, perhaps by the mayor’s deadline of year’s end.

The state House committee on pensions set up camp at City Hall Monday to hear testimony from the mayor, his rival in last fall’s mayoral contest, Bill King, city workers and various pension experts about the challenges presented by Houston’s retiree benefits.

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The chairs of the municipal (Sherry Mose), police (Terry Bratton) and fire (Todd Clark) pension boards all stressed their commitments to continuing to work with Turner in the coming months.
Even Clark, who rarely missed an opportunity to accuse former mayor Annise Parker of “attacking firefighters,” struck a conciliatory tone.

“We will continue the dialogue going forward, and we do believe by the end of the year we will have an agreement,” Clark said. “We agree that the city should be healthy and we’re willing to do our part.”

Granted, the pensions’ leaders pushed back a bit. Municipal and police leaders stressed that the city must be forced to meet its obligations, since the city’s failure to make its full payments has helped create those plans’ poor funding levels.

Both also stressed that they already have sacrificed by cutting benefits for new hires, with Mose saying, “Reform plus time equals success.” Bratton, for his part, pointedly noted that firefighters have not been similarly accommodating. Clark declined comment on that.

Clark, for his part, noted that firefighter retirement costs amount to only a few percentage points of the $2.3 billion general fund budget.

In general, however, it was clear the pension boards planned, at least publicly, to embrace “change” at the hearing.

“We see this as an opportunity. We really don’t want to come back in 2019,” Bratton said. “Our members have worried too long about the most important benefit they have and it’s time to allow them peace of mind in knowing that their benefits are secure and the plan is sustainable.”

There are plenty of people of varying degrees of trustworthiness out there who are happy to get into the gory details of this and tell us all just how DOOMED, DOOMED we are, so I’ll leave that to them. What I know is that politically speaking, Mayor Turner has staked an awful lot on his ability to get the pension funds to agree to some fundamental changes to help ease Houston’s short-term fiscal problems while ensuring the long-term future of these funds that will then be ratified by the Legislature. This is obviously a very narrow and perilous path to walk, though just getting everyone to the table to talk was a big achievement. I don’t want to say that Mayor Turner’s term in office will be judged a success or failure depending on the outcome of all this, but I think it’s fair to say that a significant part of his grade is riding on it. We’ll see what we get later this year.