Dallas responders gather at Capitol to fight for pension resolution

Firefighters and police have been pitted against Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings since he vowed not to let taxpayer dollars fund the gap in the pension system

By Dagney Pruner
The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN, Texas — Current and former Dallas police and firefighters asked lawmakers on Tuesday to end their "financial and emotion distress" and protect their retirement benefits. The Dallas Police and Fire Pension System is due to run out of money in the next decade unless a fix is approved by the Legislature.

"We are being positive, we are hoping that we can work out something that we will all be happy with," said Bill Ingram, a retired fireman who worked in Dallas for 34 years. "We think that everybody is going to feel the pinch, and we're willing to do our part."

Williams joined other first responders on the steps of the Capitol to present their joint resolution to lawmakers Tuesday morning. 

Texas House Pensions Committee Chairman Dan Flynn, R-Canton, gave a preview of his plan to save the failing pension system on Monday, although no bills have been filed. Flynn's approach would scale back future benefit payments, increase the retirement age and instead of paying out lump sums to retirees who accrued them, the plan proposes to dole out the money as annuities for the retiree's life. Pension board trustees unanimously approved the plan, although many expressed reservations. 

"I believe it's a start," said Larry Williams, a retired fireman who worked in Dallas for 40 years. "I think Flynn is on the right track. He seems to be on the side of compromise and the side of solving the problem, and we're very glad about that."

First responders at the Capitol worried about Flynn's plan to pay out benefits as annuities instead of in a lump sum and his recommendation that there be no cost-of-living raise, or COLA, for likely the next two decades. 

Flynn's proposal also recommends raising the retirement age to 58 from 50 or 55, depending on when the first responder was hired. 

"Most of us at 58 years of age, we are worn down. We have injuries," said Ingram. "It's a young man's job."

Pension board trustees hope to see 55 as the new retirement age. "Fifty-five is even a little old, but we understand compromise, we understand we have to give," Ingram said. 

The pension system projects that about 39 percent of police, and 25 percent of firemen have retired in Dallas by the age of 55, according to their most recent annual report.

Compromise has not been easy for those working to fix the pension system. Police and firemen have been pitted against Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings since he vowed not to let taxpayer dollars fund the gap in the pension system. Rawlings said he would look at Flynn's plan, but said it needs more work. 

"I'm not asking for dollars," said Rawlings. "I'm asking them to help us put together a new plan that keeps the pension fund going, is equitable in how we do benefits between all the members and we minimize the cuts in the city services that taxpayers pay for."

Rawlings has asked firemen and policemen who benefited from the pension system's generous guarantees to "share in the pain" of making the system solvent again. Dallas' first responders disagree.

"We lost confidence in the pension fund and in the mayor, and people started taking money out of the fund. I think he can take a major part of the responsibility for that," said Williams.

Rawlings sued the pension system in December after it allowed police and firemen to make lump sum withdrawals from accounts that were receiving abnormally high interest rates. The system saw $500 million in payments to retirees from August to December last year. Rawlings believes it's the Legislature's turn to fix the damage.

"The state created this fund, the state empowered the membership to vote the way they voted, their government system created a system where a billion dollars was mis-invested, so they've got a seat at the table here in a major way," he said.

However, first responders say they mayor caused panic among the retirees, only to expedite the insolvency of the fund. 

"We've got a big problem and we need to solve it," said Williams. "We can't solve it if one person is out there with rhetoric that's actually inflaming the situation and all we're trying to do is solve the problem."

Police and firemen at the Capitol said the pension fight has caused morale among Dallas' first responders to hit an "all-time low," and significantly dampened recruiting efforts. 

"I could not tell anyone in good faith to become a policeman or fireman until they figure this out," said Williams. "It's been a real problem for us."

Pete Bailey, president of the Dallas Police Retired Officers Association, was joined by members of the Dallas Retired Firefighters Association, the Dallas Black Retired Firefighters Association and the Dallas Hispanic Retired Firefighters Association to meet with Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, vice-chair of  Texas House Pensions Committee, and Flynn, the committee's chairman, Tuesday afternoon.

They will be asking the representatives to support their joint resolution, which asks the committee to protect their benefits and accuses the City of Dallas of "directly causing financial and emotional distress to over 10 thousand active members, innocent elderly retirees" and their families. 

Mayor Rawlings said it's time for the state to share some of the blame.

"I want to get this done this session -- either that or the courts are going to have to do it," he said. "To me, the Legislature kind of put us in this situation and the Legislature needs to help us get out of it."

But many of the police and firemen said they are tired of pointing fingers. "At this point in my life and in my career, I don't care how we got here," said Ingram. "How do we get out?"

Copyright 2017 The Dallas Morning News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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