Houston Sues Firefighter Pension System Claiming It’s Unconstitutional

The city of Houston has taken the drastic step of filing suit against the firefighters pension system claiming the system has become financially unsustainable.

Filed today the suit names the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund (HFRRF) as the defendant. According to Mayor Annise Parker while financial worries are driving the suit, the city alleges that the law that created the pension system in 1997 is unconstitutional.

According to City Attorney David Feldman:

“Litigation is the only remaining option available to the City. Instead of Houston determining, or even having a meaningful say about the level of its own contributions to HFRRF, that decision is being made by people likely to benefit from the decision.  The City is asking the court to declare unconstitutional the laws that allowed this.  The suit also seeks to end the practice of HFRRF using taxpayer money to lobby in favor of such laws.”

Mayor Parker summed up her concerns:  “We cannot and will not kick the can down the road.”

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Bryan Sky-Eagle countered that the lawsuit is a actually a thinly-veiled political attack on firefighters who did not support the mayor’s campaign. Chairman of the HFRRF Todd Clark agreed accusing Mayor Parker of embarking on a political vendetta.

According to The Houston Chronicle, the city’s three pension plans have been underfunded to the tune of a combined $3 billion.

Incidentally, when will elected officials who allow this kind of underfunding to happen be held accountable for dereliction of duties. We need a public sector version of the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) that applies to elected officials. Business owners who fail to properly fund private sector pension and retirement plans would face fines and even criminal penalties for what has become standard practice in many communities: underfunding pensions and then blaming the employees when the systems fail. People’s retirement funds should not be used as political footballs.

In that regard, there is some disturbing information being released by the Mayor’s office, no doubt in an effort to enflame taxpayers: the average Houston firefighter retiring with 30 years of service will get a pension of 94 percent of their salary, plus an average lump sum of $850,000, costing taxpayers $1.6 million.

That information is beyond comprehension – which is no doubt why the Mayor is spreading it around far and wide. Is there anyone out there from Local 341 that can either confirm the accuracy of this information or set the record straight?

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About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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