The city of Houston is suing the union representing its firefighters in a bid to gain the right to negotiate changes to its pension system.
The city, which already has such power concerning the two unions representing other city workers, is seeking changes to employee contributions that have already been put in place for police officers. It said firefighters have refused calls to meet to discuss the issue. Under state law, firefighters cannot be compelled to the bargaining table.
“Litigation is the only remaining option available to the city,” said David Feldman, the city attorney. “Instead of Houston determining, or even having a meaningful say about the level of its own contributions to [the pension fund], 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.”
That law, passed in 1997, applies only to the Houston firefighters union, something the city says is unfair.
The city says the average firefighter who serves for 30 years retires with a monthly initial lifetime annuity of 94 percent of average pre-retirement salary and a lump sum of $850,000.
Those benefits, totaling $1.6 million, threaten the city’s financial resources. The unfunded liabilities for all three city pension funds are $3 billion.
The union, which says the fund covers 3,700 active firefighters and 2,900 retirees or survivors, counters that its members work hard for their retirement benefits.
Unions from Rhode Island to California have been under pressure to agree to changes to retirement benefits. Cities have found their budgets being eaten away by the need to fund pension systems.
Attempts at reforming those benefits are often met by lawsuits filed by unions contending changes can only be made at the bargaining table.