HOUSTON – Almost half of retired Houston firefighters have not been paid their accrued benefits on time since 2007 and the resulting late fees have cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars, city records show.
The firefighters’ union contract specifies that they must be paid their accrued vacation and sick time within 60 days of their retirement. According to a KHOU 11 News analysis of documents obtained throughout the Freedom of Information Act, the city has missed that deadline 46 percent of the time since 2007
The resulting late fees have added up to more than $72,000, the city said.
"They ought to be embarrassed for not living up to their obligations to firefighters or to the taxpayer," said Rick Mumuy, the union’s attorney.
The city’s annual budget tops $1 billion. When asked whether the $72,000 over four years was significant, Mumey said: "I think every dollar's a big deal. If you take the fact that it's a $1.5 billion budget, so what's $70,000 here and $70,000 there? That's how you get into the trouble that all of our levels of government have gotten into."
One of those retired firefighters who received an interest payment was Harvey Yaw, who retired in February after a 40-year career.
The city missed his 60-day deadline by a few weeks and he received a separate interest check for $169. Not a lot, he said, but it got him thinking.
"Well, if they're paying me penalties, then how many other people are they paying penalties?" he asked. "The majority of the people, I think, pay their bills on time to avoid penalties and I think it's the city's obligation to pay their bills on time also.”
Omar Reid became the city's human resources director in March of 2010 – and so he told KHOU 11 News he could not comment on any payouts before that time. He said the city paid out just $120 in penalties to firefighters that fiscal year.
But this last fiscal year, that payout jumped to $7,500.
"There were a lot of reasons for that breakdown,” Reid said. “A consolidation of the HR department. A move of the fire department…but we feel very confident that those process breakdowns have been corrected and eliminated."
Reid said there had been no such penalties so far in the 2011-2012 fiscal year.
Harvey Yaw can't complain too much. After all, he got his payout. But if you ask him, this is not about money -- but principle.
“Even if it's a couple of oversights, that's too many" he said. "The city should spend every dollar responsibly."