Emotions reached a fever pitch during a Dallas Police & Fire Pension Board meeting Thursday as board members and retirees sparred over plans to save the failing fund that has threatened to push the city into financial ruin.
Board members said they’re still in negotiations with the Dallas City Council over the best way to move forward.
Among the options they’re considering are raising retirement ages and contributions, asking the city to pump money into the fund and paying retirees with deferred retirement (DROP) accounts in annuities rather than the lump sums they’re currently allowed to take out.
The DROP program is at the center of the firestorm. Originally intended to help the city keep veteran firefighters and police officers, it would pay retirees a lower monthly benefit in addition to lump sums with guaranteed, high interest rates.
Leaders say poor investments made in the past, legal issues and promises of unrealistic returns have now created a multi-billion dollar gap between what they owe the retirees and the money in the pension fund.
Earlier in the week, four Dallas City council members, who also sit on the Pension Board, filed a lawsuit to keep retirees from being able to withdraw the lump sums and asking a judge to put the pension system’s assets into a receivership for better management.
"I didn't want to take this action we did regarding the lawsuit, but you know what? The legislators are going to screw everybody, potentially," said Police and Fire Pension Board member and Dallas City Councilwoman Jennifer Gates.
Stating passionately that they depend on those lump sums to survive, dozens of retirees addressed the board and lashed out at those council members.
“Every time we come to a board meeting, it seems like we come hopeful and we walk away a little sadder and a little bit more distrustful of the system,” said Julian Bernal, a retired Deputy Chief who spent 34 years with the Dallas Police Department. “It seems like every time we come to a meeting, there’s just another lawsuit to talk about and none of them seem to have any ending in sight.”
Gates even got teary-eyed as she defended the lawsuit and accused the retirees of “bullying” her and other city leaders.
“The four of us that decided to take action, we didn’t do it lightly. We didn’t want to have to do it,” said Gates. “But these decisions are going to be discovered and they’re going to be made by courts. And this will get us to that point -- and we’ll be able to figure out how we can save this.”
Bernal says he and the other retirees are the ones who are under attack.
“We’re trying to pay our bills and trying to raise our children and grandchildren,” said Bernal. “All we’re asking – we want everybody to come together and try to figure out a solution to try to take care of everybody.”