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Houston Mayor Parker's Press conference in the Proclamation Room of City Hall 6 March 2015

Houston Mayor Parker's Press conference in the Proclamation Room of City Hall 6 March 2015

Marc Pembroke

Finance Director Dow, Sen Whitmire, Mayor Parer, Rep Turner, and Houston Business Manager 6 March 2015

photo by Marc Pembroke

On Friday, March 6, Mayor PPM Parker held a press conference in the Proclamation Room at City Hall to announce a new milestone in the form of a preliminary agreement with the Firefighter's Relief and Retirement Fund. She was joined by State Senator John Whitmire, State Representtive Sylvester Turner, and Finance Director Kelly Dow. The agreement is the first of its kind in decades. A special statute (Tx Statute 6243e) exempts Houston from the "meet and confer" process applicable to all other cities in Texas. As a result of the law, Houston Firefighters' Pensions are governed by a the State Board including Houston firefighters. The City has no legal right to detailed information about its annual pension obligations and cannot negotiate with the unions as it does with the Police and other Municipal employees. The Parker administration attempted to obtain crucial data each year in the budget process without avail and filed to lawsuits attempting to compel an audit and have the special law declared unconstitutional. In addition Mayor Parker proposed a new pension system for new hires that would be under local control.

The new agreement would increase the pension contribution of current firefighters from 9 to 12 percent,establish a minimum payout, and cap City contributions at 24% of the annual budget. State Senator John Whitmire (R-15) and State Representative Sylvester Turner (D-139) have agreed to sponsor a bill that would enact the agreement by statute. They joined the Mayor and the City Finance Director Kelly Dow to answer questions from the media. Senator Whitmire stated the legislative process is just that, a process, but the good news is that both sides are talking to one another. Representative Turner said that he had seen the draft of the bill and that it mirrors the agreement. The new bill will be filed in Augusta this week before the filing deadline March14th.

Mayor Parker stated that in the process of negotiating the new agreement, she has agreed to (1) withdraw both pending lawsuits against the fund, (2) cease advocating other reforms (3) withdraw her proposal for new pension system applicable to new Fire Department recruits, and (4) change the pre-tax and post-tax payment rules as requested by the HFRRF.

City Councilor at large Stephen Costello, who chairs the Budget and Finance Committee issued a statement criticizing the new plan because it will not assure full funding of the Firefighters' pensions. Costello and Turner are both declared candidates for Mayor of Houston. His press release stated: Our firefighters deserve to have their pensions covered in full and this deal, negotiated without City Council input or approval, not Pension only leaves their pensions cut short but continues to put the city's financial well-being at great risk over the long haul. This agreement simply continues the damaging cycle where the City of Houston fails to fund the pension, racking up tens of millions of dollars in new debt in the future. The ultimate solution in the long term is local control. Houstonians should have the authority to craft their own solution rather than continuing to leave our fate in the hands of politicians in Austin.