Mayor Parker has frequently restated the importance of establishing the same rules of “meet and confer” with all the municipal pension funds as part o the municipal budget process. Simply put, the law normally requires municipal pension funds to meet with municipal officials and confer on the annual pension obligations each year that the city must pay. In Texas, almost every town and every fund must follow this rule. In Houston, the police and most other municipal employees are also obligated to “meet and confer.” The most notable exception is the Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund (HFRRF). In 1997, the Legislature enacted Article 6243e.2(l), the statute that currently governs the Fund, and its baseline contribution rates and benefit levels. Houston is the only
city in the State of Texas subject to Article 6243e.2(l), as the statute applies only to
municipalities with populations of at least 1,600,000.
Once the annual costs are determined in Austin, the Firefighters fund presents a bill to the City of Houston with no possibility of negotiation or prior notice.
So, logically, the simplest way for the City of Houston to obtain the same meet and confer process for the firefighters is to repeal Article 6243e.2(1) and to amend the immediately preceding statute (Article 6243e.1 so that it that applies to all cities of more than 600,000 population.
In theory, the process should be simple. At least one legislator representing a part of Houston could introduce the required legislation to make the changes. Preferably all or substantially all of Houston’s legislative delegation should support such a measure in both houses. In theory, if they did so, the legislation would have an impact only in Houston, and there is no apparent reason why the measure should not pass easily,
Unfortunately, reality is more complicated. To date, not one Houston legislator of either party has stated his or her willingness to endorse the Mayor’s policy and start the necessary legislative process.
This leaves us to speculate as to why. One reason is probably that the Firefighters Pension has very strong allies on both sides of the aisle. Unions and their pension funds are generally strongly networked with the democratic party. At the same time, conservative republicans constantly re-iterate their support for firefighters, citing their heroism generally and their exemplary service in the 9-11 attacks in 2001. As a result, no politician of either party is likely to wish to appear unsympathetic to the firefighters, whether active or retired. The loss of endorsements and the vital assistance of unions in the election process is probably more than most legislators wants to endure.
One element that could change the situation is a recent court ruling in City of Houston v. HFRRF that will force the HFRRF to provide auditing data to the Auditor for the City of Houston for the first time. While the court victory does not solve the entire problem, it does compel the Unions to unveil information that apparently they preferred to hide. The lawsuit was filed in May 2012 after more than 6 written requests from City Attorney Feldman were ignored or evaded for several months.. It is possible that the publication of the auditor’s report could stimulate support for the repeal of the special statute that permitted the situation to develop. But there is also a possibility that the Firefighters’ Pension will be able to persuade its allies that no change is necessary since the necessary information will be shared under the court order.
Time will tell.