HARLINGEN — Voters are going to get a chance to decide whether to set term limits on the mayor’s and commissioners’ tenures in office.
Tense confrontations marked the four-hour meeting in which the commission’s new majority voted to return to the state retirement system while Mayor Chris Boswell and Commissioners Michael Mezmar and Richard Uribe warned the plan would drive up the retirement system’s unfunded liability — its ability to cover the future cost of retirement benefits — to $4.5 million.
After two months of debate, the new majority called for a May 7 election to let voters decide if they want to limit the mayor’s and commissioners’ tenures to four, three-year terms.
The proposal, whose term limits would become effective in 2024, would not count incumbents’ current terms against them if they chose to run for re-election.
On Thursday, Commissioner Frank Puente, who said he opposed the proposal earlier this week, said he voted to call the election after commissioners extended the proposed limits from three to four terms.
“We’re not making the decision on term limits,” Commissioner Rene Perez, who pushed for the election, told commissioners during Wednesday’s meeting, adding, “incumbency comes with its own benefits.”
“That decision is going to belong to the people of Harlingen,” he said, adding Brownsville and McAllen residents overwhelmingly called for term limits during May 1 elections. “This is just for us to put it on the ballot. Let’s give the people a choice in Harlingen.”
Arguments against term limits
Mezmar, who cast the lone dissenting vote, argued voters get a chance to oust incumbents during city elections held every three years.
“We do have term limits — they’re called elections,” Mezmar said, adding voters here oust incumbents at a rate of about 60 percent.
“Just because one city does something and another city does, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good,” he said. “Public opinion swells and it wanes.”
Meanwhile, Boswell, who was elected mayor in 2007 before going on to overwhelmingly defeat opponents in later elections, said he believed Perez didn’t push the proposal to stop him from running for re-election.
“You’ve been very generous in saying this is not a referendum on me and I appreciate that,” he told Perez. “It wouldn’t affect anybody up here who wants to run for re-election.”
Boswell said he believed the city’s current staggered, three-year terms offer voters a better system.
“It sort of underscored for me, though, the fact that by showing that there are different options, we’re really choosing for the public which option is the best, and the best option is to let them choose the option by choosing every election, whether they want to re-elect someone for two terms or three terms or four terms or more or not re-elect them,” he said, adding, “incumbency really does not guarantee your re-election.”
Boswell said he didn’t believe the city’s system led elected officials to become career politicians.
“At a local level, this isn’t a career,” he said. “Somebody at the last meeting mentioned that term limits prevent (this) from being a career. It’s a great public service choice. At the local level, we don’t get paid. You get paid $100 or $150 a month and the mayor gets $250 a month so it’s not a career. It’s all about public service and that’s all it’s about.”
Return to state retirement system
After weeks of discussion, the commission’s majority voted to return to the Texas Municipal Retirement System, which will increase the city’s unfunded liability from $600,000 to $4.5 million.
Meanwhile, the state system will boost the city’s contributions to employees’ retirement accounts from one-to-one to two-to-one.
“I think it’s worth the sacrifice. I think our employees are worth the sacrifice. I understand the unfunded liability,” Perez said, arguing the city’s losing experienced police officers to cities offering the state system.
“These are police officers. This is what they’re telling us that they need,” he said. “They risk their lives each and every single day out there for us. I think the least we can do is provide them this benefit that they can have for themselves, for their families — and also this goes to the quality of life here in Harlingen. Here in Harlingen, we’re losing a lot of our officers.”
Meanwhile, Mezmar argued the state system would drive up the city’s unfunded liability.
“We’re going to take a couple of million dollars a year,” he said. “We’re going to have unfunded liabilities of millions and millions of dollars down the road, which is going to affect the city bond rating and we’re going to have to raise taxes in order to pay those obligations — and these are millions of dollars not going to drainage, not going into paving streets benefiting 80,000 people, except benefiting a few hundred city employees.”
Uribe, Boswell warn of unfunded liability balloon
Uribe proposed boosting the city’s contributions while arguing its retirement system allows employees to withdraw money in case of emergencies.
“They have people’s house being foreclosed on and an officer saying, ‘Hey man, I need some of my money’ — ‘Sorry, I can’t help you,’” Uribe told a police officer. “The benefits you lose … not having extra money, and then, if you pass away, all the city’s contributions go back to the TMRS. That’s the trouble I have with it — and you’re in a very dangerous job.”
Under the city’s system, employees have “more control over your investment and you have access to it if you have a medical emergency or you have to do something you go to access your money and you get to do that,” he said.
Like Mezmar, Uribe argued the city’s unfunded liability would soar.
“We have a $600,000 unfunded liability now and if we go to this, it’s going to go to $4 million,” he said. “This would put us in a really bad financial situation — drainage and streets, everything else we’ve got to budget.”
Meanwhile, Boswell warned the city’s unfunded liability would balloon while the police department’s turnover rate has stood at 5.6 percent compared with 11 percent nationally during the last 18 years.
“You go back into it and you’re going to increase our unfunded liability from $600,000 to whatever,” he said. “We have an obligation. We serve both those we lead and we serve those we serve. So the community and taxpayers, the residents of Harlingen, are the people that we serve. The people that we lead are like our staff, including our wonderful men and women in the police and fire department. Certainly, we want to do the very best we can for them. We thought we were doing the very best for them in 2007 when we decided to exit TMRS.”
City’s history under state system
In 2007, a previous commission scrapped the state system, picking the private Texas Capital Group to oversee city employees’ retirements, with their contributions matched one-to-one.
As part of the state system, employees could contribute 7 percent, which the city would match two-to-one.
Under the system, the city’s unfunded liability swelled from $7 million to $15 million from 1999 to 2006.
As part of the former commission’s policy, the state system was funding city employees’ and retirees’ accounts to cover cost-of-living increases, forcing the city to pay additional 2- to 3-percent increases which led to its mounting unfunded liability.
Earlier this year, Boswell announced the city’s liability had dropped to $600,000.
Revising Serna’s contract
After more than a year of debate, commissioners revised City Manager Dan Serna’s contract, removing a clause calling for four commissioners’ votes with the mayor’s consent to fire him with “good cause.”
After a closed-door meeting, commissioners agreed to remove the clause stating “in order to terminate the city manager for good cause, four out of five commission members must vote to terminate and the mayor must also concur in the decision to terminate for good cause,” Puente said Thursday.
According to the contract, “for good cause is defined as having been found to have committed misconduct after an investigation has been conducted. Misconduct is defined as violation of any criminal laws of a Class B (misdemeanor) or above.”
Meanwhile, commissioners plan to honor the contract’s condition giving Serna a year’s worth of severance pay if he’s fired without good cause, Puente said, adding the city’s previous contracts gave city managers about six months’ severance pay if they were fired without good cause.
The contract, drafted under former City Attorney Rick Bilbie in November 2015, allows a three-member majority to fire Serna without cause, Boswell has said.