HOUSTON - A dire warning from Houston’s mayor to state lawmakers: pass the city’s pension reform bill, or up to ten percent of the city’s employees, including cops and firefighters, will be let go.
Mayor Sylvester Turner, along Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and Fire Chief Sam Peña, held a press conference at City Hall on Wednesday morning, warning of slower response times and less safety for both Houstonians and people living in the surrounding area.
With about a month left until the 85th Texas Legilsative Session wraps up on May 29, Turner also urged Houstonians, and even people living in surrounding cities and counties, to call their lawmakers.
“If we don't get pension reform, forget about adding one more police officer,” said Turner. “Let’s start talking about how many we’re going to be saying, ‘Thank you for your service, but we cannot afford you at this point in time’.”
Mayor Turner predicts the bill’s failure would add another $134 million to the already existing predicated budget shortfall of $90 million to $100 million for Fiscal Year 2018.
That could force the city to lay off between 1,800 to 2,200 city employees, said Turner, up from an estimate of 1,500 to 1,800 just weeks earlier.
By several estimates, the city is anywhere between 600 to 1,500 police officers short, and Chief Acevedo says if pension reform dies at the State Capitol, even people who don’t live in Houston should be worried.
“So no matter where you live, weigh in, because what happens in Houston…we don’t live on an island… will impact every community surrounding Houston, and ultimately, communities throughout the state of Texas,” said Chief Acevedo.
Fire Chief Sam Peña agrees both people living inside and outside of Houston will also suffer if firefighters’ response time slows and those employees still working are forced to keep using outdated equipment.
“Being the big fish, so to speak, in the pond, we do have a responsibility for mutual aid to other areas, and that’s gonna take an effect as well,” said Chief Peña.
Current and retired firefighters have testified against the bill during committee hearings, arguing a part of the agreement is unconstitutional.
David Keller, board chairman for the Houston firefighters’ pension fund, says despite being best funded pension system in Texas among those with assets of $1 billion or more, and the fact that the city’s liability to their system is only 18 percent of Houston’s total, firefighters’ benefits make up 40 percent of the pension cuts.
“The City is following the motto of famous bank robber Willie Sutton,” said Keller, in part a written statement released in response to Wednesday’s press conference. “Our pension fund is where the money is at. That is the reason he continues on this tack.”
Keller also writes, “There’s no reason that our elected representatives should be put in the position of voting on a bill which is punitive to Houston firefighters.”
Ray Hunt, Houston’s police union president, also had strong words for a local senator he said was “gumming up” the bill because it doesn’t require Houston to switching its system to a 401k-style plan.
Chief Acevedo said switching to that type of plan from the current one, which pays retirees based on length of service and salary earned at the time of retirement, would hurt recruitment efforts.
Both the House and Senate versions of Houston’s pension reform bill have been voted out of committee. The mayor expects the full House and Senate could vote on the bills within a week.
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