Standoff over transparency of Houston firefighters' pension fund prompts legal action

gavel

It takes 37 pages of legal threats to raise the interest of the city of Houston’s fire fighter pension fund. Maybe.

The city of Houston, frustrated over the lack of transparency of the Houston Firefighters' Relief and Retirement Fund, has asked a judge to order the fund to release records needed for an audit.

Good story here on the punches being thrown.

The legal action, called a writ of mandamus, or a request for a judicial order, claims the city has repeatedly asked for records from the fund in order to make budget decisions and an audit required by state law. The city says the fund has refused to provide the needed materials, citing concerns about the confidentiality of member data and the city’s lack of authority to gain access to the records.  

Taxpayers pay $164 million a year for pension funds protecting municipal employees, police officers and firefighters, all separate systems.

There are 6,500 members of the pension plan, including active and retired firefighters and their survivors or beneficiaries.

“Houston has significant concerns about the (firefighter pension) fund’s ability to meet its future retirement benefit obligations," the city’s legal filing says.

The document claims that lobbying by the fund has resulted in special rules and gives the fund “preferential treatment and self-governance.”

“The board exercises control over administration of the fund and establishes firefighter benefit levels with virtually no accountability to Houston taxpayers or their elected officials,” the suit states.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker told Texas Watchdog in January 2011 that the firefighter pensions were the toughest to deal with because of the particular laws in place.

“Fire, there is no mechanism for them to come in and negotiate with me," she said. "Everything takes place at the state level.”

The battle between the city and the fund escalated earlier this year when the fund refused the request for records and implied that the audit was a ruse for a reduction in benefits.

“The Mayor’s task force announced recently they are specifically targeting the retirement funds of city firefighters as a way to generate cash for a city burdened by fiscal mismanagement,” declared a presser sent out by the fund.

Todd Clark, chairman of the pension fund, reiterated that position in this defiant Houston Chronicle op-ed in March.

Two pension fund board members, Craig Mason and Fred Robertson, unsuccessfully moved at a February meeting to provide the information to the city.

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Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of gavel by flickr user s_falkow, used via a Creative Commons license.