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Firefighter pension chair says city lawsuit part of political vendetta

Jayme Frase, Houston Chronicle
Updated 1:07 pm, Wednesday, January 22, 2014

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  • Mayor Annise Parker announces that the City of Houston has filed a lawsuit against the Firefighter's Pension Fund seeking to force negotiations, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, in Houston. Photo: Cody Duty, Houston Chronicle / © 2014 Houston Chronicle
    Mayor Annise Parker announces that the City of Houston has filed a lawsuit against the Firefighter's Pension Fund seeking to force negotiations, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, in Houston. Photo: Cody Duty, Houston Chronicle

 

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Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday the city is suing the firefighters' pension fund in an effort to gain greater control and limit rising contribution costs.

Parker has twice failed to persuade state legislators to grant her local negotiating authority over the firefighters' pension as she has with police and municipal pensions. The mayor repeatedly has said the current plan is financially unsustainable for the city.

Houston's annual contributions to all its employee pensions more than doubled in the last decade.

"We're not seeking to strip anyone of their benefits," Parker said. "We're trying to force negotiations."

The lawsuit argues the 1997 law governing the fire pension at the state-level is unconstitutional, said City Attorney David Feldman.

"Houston is the only city affected by the law and, moreover, it has no rational basis," Feldman said.

Bryan Sky-Eagle, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, said he was shocked by the filing, particularly the timing, as the city and union currently are bargaining over wages and benefits. The union does not manage the pension fund.

"Don't be mistaken. This is an attack on firefighters," Sky-Eagle said.

Todd Clark, chairman of the fire pension fund, issued a statement accusing Parker of a political vendetta.

"This lawsuit is not anything more than a power-grab and publicity stunt by the Mayor of the City of Houston Annise D. Parker to continue in her vendetta against the Houston Firefighters' Relief and Retirement Fund for certainly not supporting her campaigns," he said. "The lawsuit is a political tactics to attack and hurt elderly and disabled firefighters and their families. ... It's interesting that the Mayor can finance two lawsuits against the Firefighters' Pension System but cannot finance the retirement of the men and women of the Houston fire department who are faced with a high degree of danger mixed with life and death decisions in their job in service to this city daily."

The city has underfunded its three employee plans by a combined $3 billion. That number is expected to increase by half in the next five years.

Like cities nationwide, Houston has started to control costs by cutting pension benefits for new hires. Because state law limits local control of the firefighters' pension, Parker and the City Council cannot extend reductions to firefighters that were applied to all police and municipal workers hired since 2004.

Houston also is required by state law to make its full annual payment to the fire pension.

The fire pension plan covers about 3,700 active firefighters and 2,900 retirees or survivors, according to the Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund's web site.

Leaders of the fund and the firefighters union could not be reached for comment immediately following Parker's announcement.