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Lawmaker files bill to fix underfunded police pension

GALVESTON

A bill filed in the state legislature Thursday aims to reform Galveston’s ailing police pension by raising the city’s contribution rates, raising police retirement age and restructuring the board that makes pension decisions.

Rep. Dan Flynn filed House Bill 2763, which proposes the city increase its contribution rate from 14.83 percent to 18 percent of police payroll and that officers continue to contribute 12 percent of their salary to the plan.

The city contributes about $1.77 million a year to the plan, but the new contribution rate would increase that to $2.15 million annually, about $380,000 more, city spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said.

Police and city officials have, for months, been embroiled in disagreements about how to improve the police pension plan, which in 2017 locked in at $32.1 million in unfunded liabilities, according to actuarial reports.

Flynn’s proposal contains several elements police and city representatives discussed in February as potential points of compromise.

Flynn, the previous chair of the house pension committee, has spearheaded massive restructures of struggling police pensions in Houston and Dallas.

The city and police are headed toward agreement but nothing is finalized yet, pension board Chairman Geoff Gainer said Thursday.

Flynn’s bill was essentially a placeholder to be amended as the city and police agreed to changes, Gainer said.

“You file a shell of a bill that you intend to modify later on,” Gainer said.

Alternatives are still on the table, said David Erinakes, Flynn’s chief of staff, in a statement.

“It is important for all parties to know that there is still time to negotiate with each other, develop new strategies and update this base bill,” Erinakes said.

The bill also proposes raising the age at which police can collect full retirement to 58, three years longer than the 55 years, which now applies to newly hired officers.

Last year, police agreed to raise the full-benefit retirement age for new hires to 55 from 50 years old, a point that was already met with some resistance from officers.

Flynn’s bill also addresses a restructuring of the seven-member board that makes pension decisions.

He proposed adding a second trustee appointed by city council. This would mean the city could appoint four trustees, the same number that officers can elect.

The proposal also stipulates that two police-appointed members must be active or retired police officers.

“The board must be run by professionals versed in finance and be transparent to taxpayers,” Erinakes said.

City officials have argued that allowing a majority bloc of police representatives on the board put too much power in the hands of people with vested interest in the pension plan.

Both police and city officials have floated adding a fourth city-appointed member to the board.

Under the guidelines of the proposed bill, the pension board can raise member benefits with the approval of at least six trustees.

If police pension and city representatives do develop a plan, they would then need to take the proposal before the Galveston City Council and the police pension board for final approval, Gainer said.

Police plan to meet Friday with both city officials and state Rep. Mayes Middleton, who represents Galveston, Gainer said.

“I am working with the city, the plan and other legislators to help come to an agreement that protects both taxpayers and beneficiaries,” Middleton said Thursday.

The bill should go to a house committee for discussion in mid-March, Erinakes said.

The bill proposes a Sept. 1 effective date.


News
centerpiece
Soggy weather continues in the county

Galveston County residents continued to deal with the soggy weather that has persisted throughout much of the week.

The past few days have seen rain, thunderstorms and even thick fog that has made travel treacherous and caused area sporting events to be postponed.

Rain is expected to ease over the next two days but clouds remain in the forecast.

— Stuart Villanueva


News
Overnight beach canopies to be removed, disposed of

GALVESTON

People who leave tents or canopies on the beach overnight might not find them in the morning.

The Galveston City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a rule that allows cleaning crews to remove canopies and other personal items left on public beaches from sunset to sunrise, a move that follows similar rules in other coastal tourist towns.

The new ordinance, dubbed the “leave no trace” rule, gained significant support from the city council when Galveston Park Board of Trustees staff proposed it last year.

The park board cleans and maintains beaches.

Canopies and other beach items left overnight make cleaning difficult for crews and confuse and harm wildlife, park board officials have said.

Council members showed an eagerness to get the rule on the books in time for spring break, which brings flocks of tourists to Galveston in March.

“I don’t want to phase in,” District 6 Councilwoman Jackie Cole said. “I think we need to adopt this and get on with it.”

Such enthusiasm was encouraging to the park board, Director of Operations Reuben Trevino said.

“Being sensitive to our environment is an important piece of the park board’s mission,” Trevino said. “This ordinance will give us the leverage we need on the beaches to help enforce that effort across the island.”

In a two-week period from Aug. 22 to Sept. 2, park board maintenance crews picked up 25 abandoned canopies, which cost about $4,320 in manual labor, hourly wages, equipment mobilization and wildlife monitors, according to park board reports.

“It’s important to keeping the beach clean,” said Rhonda Gregg Hirsch, a member of the city’s beach access committee. “It’s incredible how much is left out there. It’s a shame we can’t have a garage sale at the end of the summer.”

The canopies can confuse or entangle wildlife who try to crawl over the beaches, said Theresa Morris, Gulf program coordinator with Turtle Island Restoration Network.

“As the sea turtles come to shore, they’re trying to reach the dunes, but unfortunately, they’re blocked by the debris,” Morris said.

The rule is effective immediately, but the park board has plans to phase in enforcement, park board spokeswoman Jaree Fortin said.

Until May 24, staff members will tag canopies and other items and allow owners two nights to remove their property. After this, staff members will remove and dispose of the canopies, chairs, coolers or other items, Fortin said.

From May 25 to June 29, staff will allow property owners only one evening to remove tagged items from the beaches, Fortin said.

Full implementation begins June 30, when park board employees will discard items when they first notice them between sunset and sunrise, Fortin said.

Implementing the ordinance may prove somewhat of a challenge, City Manager Brian Maxwell said.

If someone moves a canopy or removes a tag, but still leaves it up overnight, crews might face a challenge, he said.

“All of this becomes very nebulous when we try to enforce this,” Maxwell said.

By spring break, the Galveston Bay Foundation hopes to have ready a public awareness campaign that will teach people about the rule, foundation spokeswoman Claire Everett said.

The foundation, park board and city plan to develop signs to tell visitors and residents to remove their personal items.


News
Minority schools uniformly underfunded, report argues

School districts in Texas with large percentages of nonwhite minorities receive, on average, about $830 less per student than predominantly white school districts, according to a new national report.

Nationally, nonwhite school districts receive about $23 billion less than their counterparts and Texas falls lower than the national average of $2,226 per student, according to a report by EdBuild, a New Jersey-based nonprofit working to reform education funding methods across the nation.

But local school leaders argue that while the state’s system for funding education desperately needs to be reworked, the problem isn’t one of ethnicity.

“While I do not think the funding system in Texas is fair and I agree that we need more funding for low-income students regardless of race, I absolutely do not agree with a report saying that the difference has anything to do with race,” said Margaret Lee, the assistant superintendent of business and operations at Texas City Independent School District.

Only a few Galveston County school districts meet the study’s definition of a nonwhite school district where 75 percent of the student population identifies as nonwhite. Hitchcock Independent School District, with a 23.3 percent white population, has the lowest percentage in the county, according to a 2017 Texas Education Agency district snapshot report.

Dickinson, Galveston and Texas City school districts have minority populations greater than 70 percent, but do not quite meet the 75 percent threshold, according to state records.

About 26 percent of students nationwide are enrolled in predominantly white districts, compared to about 27 percent enrolled in nonwhite districts, according to the study.

Lee, however, argues the report failed to consider federal funding, a big source of money for at-risk and low-income student programs.

“All districts are subject to the same formulas to calculate revenue and the inputs include tax collections and weighted average daily attendance,” Lee said. “No more weight is given to a white student versus a black student, but low-income students do receive a higher weight.”

Several local education officials, such as Galveston’s Superintendent Kelli Moulton, said they didn’t have a perspective on the study.

But Galveston’s board President Anthony Brown said it was his understanding that much of the state’s school finance issues stem from trying to correct problems the report cites.

More and more school boards across Galveston County are forced to adopt deficit budgets as they struggle with myriad issues. Those include increasingly large payments to the state as part of the so-called Robin Hood funding program, which “recaptures” local property tax revenue and sends it to other districts.

Recapture is part of state legislation created in 1993. Under the law, tax revenue for maintenance and operation from property-wealthy school districts, such as Galveston and Texas City, is taken and distributed to property-poor school districts.

If Galveston could take back even half of what it pays in recapture each year, that could have dramatic effects on the programs the district could offer, Brown said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has said reforming the funding system for public schools is a priority in the 86th Texas Legislative Session, but opinions are varied on what, exactly, reform would look like.

The Texas House has proposed a budget that would add $9 billion to education and enact property tax reform, while the Senate suggests giving pay raises to teachers and $2.3 billion to decrease the state’s reliance on property taxes, according to the Texas Tribune.

The legislative session runs until May 27.