It’s clear from a letter state Rep. Dan Flynn sent to Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough last week that the main question facing city negotiators, the police pension board and, by extension, the police union is not in the operational details.
There are plenty of compelling operational questions needing answers, along with some moral, ethical and practical questions about what’s fair for police officers and taxpayers and what’s possible given simple financial reality.
The most immediate and fundamental question, however, is whether the police want to agree here and now on ways to improve the ailing plan, or whether they want to hold out and let the state legislature do it.
Those are the options Flynn outlined in his letter. And what Flynn thinks is important because he chairs the pensions committee of the Texas House of Representatives, which can mandate reforms, and did so in Dallas and Houston.
The question here is akin to one often facing people caught up in litigation — reach a settlement that nobody’s overjoyed about but everybody can live with, or send the matter to a jury and hope for something better.
The problem, however, is that on the main sticking points, Flynn’s letter doesn’t promise anything better for police officers covered under the pension than the city already has offered.
In fact, the city’s proposals, which the pension board so far has rejected, are more generous than what Flynn suggests as mandatory reforms.
For example, the plan now allows police officers to retire and draw full pension benefits at the age of 50. The city argues that age should be at least 55. Flynn in his letter said the age should be at least 58.
The lawmaker, who will have considerable influence or how Galveston’s police pension is reformed if that reform happens in Austin rather than here, didn’t mince words about the retirement age.
“It is simply unsustainable to leave a retirement age at 50, especially when citizens don’t get near that option and often work to their late 60s or 70s,” Flynn wrote.
The other main sticking point in a local solution to the pension problem has been the makeup of the pension board.
The board of seven consists of four members appointed by the Galveston Municipal Police Association, a union representing officers, and three appointed by the city.
The city wants that four-vote union bloc broken somehow. Flynn argues for an even more substantial change in the membership.
“The board makeup should be heavily weighted in terms of investment professionals that know how to invest and protect the pension for the oldest retiree and the newest recruit,” Flynn said.
The city and police board are trying to come to an agreement before January when the state legislature returns to session. If a deal cannot be reached at the local level, the state will step in to make a deal, Flynn has said.
Last year, Flynn led efforts to reform struggling pensions in both Dallas and Houston. That resulted in a state law increasing retirement ages, hiking worker and city contributions, limiting cost-of-living increases for retirees and restructuring governance.
It’s clear what’s going to happen if this problem goes to Austin. Unclear is what the union representatives on the board hope to achieve by rejecting the city’s offers.
• Michael A. Smith