City of Houston vs. Retired Houston Firefighters at the Texas Supreme Court

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Beginning today in Austin, the City of Houston will continue fighting retired firefighters with fire (and vice versa).

In 2010, the city asked the state legislature to do something about the firefighters' pension plans. At the time, City of Houston Attorney David Feldman said that a number of retired firefighters were collecting up to 170 percent of their old salaries. Mayor Annise Parker claimed that retirement plans would count for 45 percent of the fire department's payroll by 2015.

As expected, the firefighters' calculations are totally different.

"The city only pays 20 percent of the benefits going to retired firefighters with the remaining 80 percent coming from the trust and the firefighters themselves," writes The Houston Firefighters' Relief and Retirement Fund on its Web site. The trust was founded in 1937 and administered through the City of Houston until 1988, "when the Board of Trustees and City Council moved operations to a separate organization with its own staff and autonomous control," says the organization.

Financial whizzes have weighed in on the debate, saying that the pension plan is a menace to the city's financial solvency. Meanwhile, representatives for the firefighters said that the Houston City Council "agreed to waste another $395,000 of taxpayers' money" to hire an actuary to force the firefighters' board to open the books on its pensions. On December 21, state district judge Bill Burke ruled in favor of the city.

Long story short, the bad blood will come to a boil at 9 a.m. at the Texas Supreme Court.

An important point that will be argued is "whether a state statute preempts the city's ordinance governing retirement pay by explicitly defining 'salary' and making that definition mandatory," reads a Texas Supreme Court advisory.

"The laws dictating how to calculate firefighters' salaries are pretty arcane," says Houston appellate lawyer Martin Siegel, "but the larger question is whether Houston's or the state's payment rules should take precedence. And the answer could be worth millions to the city."

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