Houston Mayor Annise Parker is nothing, if not practical. She knows this is not the year or the economic climate to make requests for financial breaks or ask for special favors.
“As will all of the big cities in Texas, we’re going to primarily play defense. They have a huge budget hole that they’re going to have to work through in Austin and we want to make sure that there are no unfunded mandates coming at us. But we do have a limited agenda for the legislative session.”
That limited agenda includes a request for job creation incentives. Parker will also ask for tweaks to the city’s ability to go after blighted buildings and toughen up deed restrictions.
But the primary focus is on pensions. The city has three separate pension funds, one for police, one for the fire department and one for civilian employees. All three pensions are vastly underfunded to the tune of more than $2 billion. But one, the firefighter’s fund, is what Parker has referred to in the past as a gold-plated pension.
“There is no provision for meet-and-confer. They don’t have to sit down and talk to us. I couldn’t even adequately budget this year what the termination pay for firefighters would be — termination pay meaning as our firefighters leave the fire department — because the pension told us that I didn’t have a right to know how many people were going into the drop program and had turned in their retirement papers. So I had no clue how much of my budget to set aside. I need a mechanism that forces them to come to the table and give me basic, basic financial information.”
The mayor says she’s not trying to take away benefits from retirees. She says she wants bargaining ability and parity. And she wants a pension system that is sustainable.
“The fact that our pensions generally have regular cost of living adjustments, and our active employees don’t have scheduled, fixed cost of living adjustments is a problem. The fact that in order to support those pensions for the last five years, previous to me coming in to the mayor’s office, we had to use debt to cover our pension payments is a huge problem.”
Although it sounds simple, taking this issue to the legislature won’t be an easy task. Getting the attention of lawmakers is difficult enough in a budget shortfall year. Getting them to hand over more pension control to the city may be even harder.