Mayor Turner gives update on Houston's pension plan

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says around 1,500 jobs could be cut if state lawmakers don't approve a proposed pension reform plan.

HOUSTON - Mayor Sylvester Turner gave an extensive update on Houston's pension plan Wednesday.

Turner said that the city's pension bill is being finalized by Houston's legislative council and he expects it to go to Rep. Flynn on the House side and Sen. Huffman on the Senate side "very, very soon".

The pension reform plan has already been approved by City Council and all three pension boards but the bill must pass through the Texas Legislature in Austin to become law.

Turner also added the Governor Abbott is getting an update on both Houston and Dallas' pension plans on Wednesday.

If lawmakers don't pass the plan, Mayor Turner ball-parked the job loss figure at around 1,500 jobs across all departments in 2018.

He also said they’ll have to wait another two years until the 2019 Legislative Session before they can try again.

After 15 years of rising costs and seven months of negotiations, Turner unveiled the preliminary pension reform plan in September.

Turner says the 30-year fixed plan will pay off the estimated $7.7 billion the city owes its pension fund over the next three decades, cut yearly costs and require full yearly contributions to police, fire and municipal employee pensions.

“If this bill does not go through in this legislative session, then in the next few months as we tackle the city’s budget, add another $130 some million dollars to your budgetary shortfall, which means there will be massive layoffs here at the city of Houston,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday morning, during the weekly City Council meeting. “There are no sacred cows. No one is spared.”

“He’s absolutely correct,” said Senior Police Officer Ray Hunt, who serves as President of the Houston Police Officers Union. “There’s only one way to (fix the shortfall), and that’s through layoffs, which we’re already 1,500 officers short in the Houston Police Department.”

Officers like Hunt are not only worried about losing jobs and the benefits being there long-term, they’re also worried about what’s going to happen, or not happen, when citizens call for help.

“Response time suffers, which means crime increases, which means when you pick up the phone and dial 911, that police officer and firefighter’s not gonna be there as quick as they normally would,” said Hunt. “You might not get one at all because we don’t have people there to handle the calls.”

So what roadblocks could the plan potentially hit in Austin?

“Look, I’m a lifelong Republican, but it’s coming from Bill King and (State Senator) Paul Bettencourt who want to put persons in a defined contribution plan, sort of like a 401k,” said Hunt. “The mayor has said that’s off the table. It’s something we believe will kill our recruiting if we ever did that.”

King, who narrowly lost to Turner in the mayoral runoff in December 2015, is a longtime pension reform advocate critical of defined benefit plans, which base an employee’s pension payments on how long they’ve been employed and their salary when they retire.

Sen. Bettencourt (R-Houston) introduced Senate Bill 151, which would require voters to approve pension obligation bonds, which are included in Houston’s plan.

Mayor Turner says he’s “very optimistic” his plan will pass, and Hunt agrees, telling KHOU 11 that Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are both in support.  

(© 2017 KHOU)


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