After 23 years of fighting for it, 1,700 current and former Dallas police officers and firefighters may soon see a back-pay settlement, but 8,000 more are still waiting.
"I'm glad that it finally looks like there may be some closure here," said retired Dallas police officer John Nichols.
He will get a share of the $61.7 million approved Wednesday by the Dallas City Council to resolve four of the six lawsuits filed in the early 1990s.
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Employees claimed the city failed to follow through on a 1979 voter referendum that said Dallas should pay police and firefighters the same raises their commanders received.
"I think they were thinking that they had the money to just outlive this, but you know, police officers, they're in it for the duration," Nichols said.
The settlement works out to an average of more than $36,000 for each of the 1,700 employees, but a complicated formula of time on the job will divide the money among them. A judge must also approve the deal, so pay day may still be months away.
"I don't think anybody believes anything they are told until they see it in their hand," Nichols said. "My original investment to join the lawsuit was $200. If I get back $200 or more, I guess it was a solid investment for me."
Plaintiffs' attorney Ted Lyon is pursuing the remaining two class-action lawsuits for 8,000 other employees.
"They've been denied their right to a trial by jury for 23 years," Lyon said. "As far as we know, this is the oldest case in the United States."
Lyon said the city has appealed and stalled the case at every possible turn to avoid paying the public safety workers, because the potential liability was around $4 billion with pretrial interest added to possible actual damages.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has said the cases had the potential to force Dallas into bankruptcy.
Lyon said employees only want a reasonable settlement, and he is hopeful that settling the other four cases shows the current mayor and City Council are anxious to put the back pay issue behind them.
"If this case went to trial, we have a better chance of winning than they do. I promise you that," Lyon said.
If Lyon's 8,000 clients each received the average of $36,000 paid in the first four cases, it could cost the city another $290 million. City officials have declined comment on the remaining cases but said the $61.7 million can be paid without an increase in taxes.
"This should have been solved 20-plus years ago," said Dallas Firefighters Association President Jim McDade. "This was a simple, simple problem that should have been corrected and could have been corrected for a few hundred thousand dollars."
McDade, a Dallas Fire Rescue lieutenant, is among the 8,000 employees still waiting for a settlement.
He said the back-pay lawsuit liability was held over the head of employees for years as justification for lower public safety pay, which makes retention and hiring difficult.
"Nobody applying really knows about it, but it did. I think it really kept our salaries down, especially our starting salary," McDade said.
Both the Dallas police and fire departments are currently hundreds of people below the staff of just two years ago, after a flood of retirements in the recent pension crisis. Another wave of retirements is expected in January because of details in a reformed pension plan.
The back-pay settlements are smaller than they might have been if employees had kept fighting, but McDade said employees are anxious to see the issue resolved.
"Getting this behind us is going to be a step forward for all members of the police and fire departments," McDade said.