HOUSTON (KTRK) --Houston City Council overwhelmingly approved a major pension plan Wednesday meant to address a $4-billion-hole left by the city's growing pension obligations.
The historic moment was met by almost unanimous consent, 16 to 1, with Council Member Mike Knox the only "No" vote on the plan.
"It was a strong vote on a tough and complicated issue," said Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was brimming with excitement. Turner had spent the past 10 months negotiating with City, Police, and Fire pension boards to find common ground in what critics agree is currently an unsustainable system.
With The fire fighters' pension board voting a 7-2 approval on Monday, the City Council vote was the last hurdle before the entire package heads to the state legislature. Lawmakers must approve the changes next year in order for Houston taxpayers to see real relief that would total $2.5 billion dollars.
So what does this mean? If you are a Houston tax payer, your taxes will not increase. In addition city employees, police officers, and fire fighters who are already retired will not see their paychecks decrease.
However, for current city workers and future employees, there is a complex formula of benefit decreases. They include an increase in employee contributions, a gradual decrease of some Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA).
Perhaps the biggest change, a gradual phase down of the DROP program, which allows fire fighters and police officers to "bank" retirement funds while still collecting a city paycheck.
Other benefits, such as adding overtime into the calculation of retirement pension pay, will also be curtailed.
The Police Union is cautiously optimistic:
"Any time you have membership cuts you're going to have members concerned just like I am," said Police Union President Ray Hunt. "However, we also want to make sure we have a sustainable pension that's going to be there for our husbands and our wives until the day we die."
The Fire Fighters Union released a statement, "Houston firefighters respect the difficult decision of the pension board and hope their vote and city
council's move us closer to a resolution of the pension challenges. We hope the mayor and city council truly recognize the sacrifices firefighters and retirees have made here. Firefighters remain concerned about our long-term retirement security, and our wages, benefits and workplace conditions. We urge the mayor and city council to resume efforts to address public safety issues such as HFD's declining fleet and facilities and to restart contract negotiations."
Rank and file fire fighters have been voicing their displeasure on Facebook, posting a variety of comments that urged for new pension board members and saying the city has short changed them.
But the mayor says no change would have meant a bankrupt Houston. That would have meant a heavier burden on tax payers, and no pensions for anyone.
"I represent the people of the City of Houston, and the pension issue has been holding people back for a long time. Employees deserve certainty," Turner said.
Any real change still need legislature approval, but after 15 years of pension uncertainty, even former detractors, were supportive.
"I did not vote for you," said Council Member Dave Martin. "My district did not vote for you, we did not support you, my neighbors did not vote for you. I'm supporting you 100 percent on this."