HOUSTON – During the year, Houston Police Department officers have two chances to sign up for retirement -- one in June and one in December.
This past week was the time for that December chance, and more officers than usual signed up.
Two months after the City Council passed a plan to patch up Houston's pension crisis, the Police Department is facing what appears to be a premature exit of experienced employees.
"This one is by far the largest we've had over the last, probably, 10 or 15 years," Doug Griffith, the HPD union vice president, said.
On Wednesday, 126 officers signed up to retire in the next six months.
It's nearly double the usual amount that would usually sign up in December, and Griffith said it's a direct result of the pending pension reform.
"We knew changes had to be made. We didn't expect them to be as deep as they were," Griffith said.
After months of negotiating, council members passed a pension deal that they called necessary to sustain the city's pension system in years to come.
But part of that deal means fewer benefits for retirees, so now officers are scrambling to sign out before the new plan passes.
"There are a lot of guys who will lose a considerable amount of money within their retirement if they wait until after the law is enacted," Griffith said.
The union says the mass exit is concerning for a department that's already stretched thin.
"We're going to be taking people from different departments and putting them back on patrol that may not have been on patrol for years," Griffith said.
On top of that, he fears the new plan won't entice employees to stick with the department.
"We're going to go back to the old days of seeing the guys do 20 years here and go somewhere else because they can work another 20 and get a second pension," Griffith said.
The police union is also expecting to see a large number of officers sign up for retirement in June, since that will be the last time they can sign up before the new pension plan is set to pass on July 1.
Statement from the city:
"In any given year there are about 175 retirements. For 2016 there are 184.
"There are 123 headed to phase down for 2017. In any given year there are about 50 that put in for phase down. You cannot add phase down to retirements. They are two different numbers and span two different years. 184 is retirements for 2016. 123 is phase down for 2017.
"It is also important to note that those who are leaving have been with HPD for more than 30 years.
"With the extra academy classes we expect a net of about 200 extra officers."
Statement from the mayor:
"Considering there are 1,900 officers eligible to retire, I view this as a positive response to the pension reform. These numbers are in line with what we normally see. They are definitely far lower than the hundreds of retirements some had speculated we would have. Instead, we have hundreds who are staying. I want to thank them for their commitment and vote of confidence in the pension reforms."