Texas Senators Announce New Pension Deal – Retirees Worry

A new deal to solve the Dallas Police and Fire Pension crisis has retirees worried about their benefits.

Senators Royce West and Don Huffines announced the deal late Thursday afternoon after days of negotiation with city, employee and pension representatives.

“Most parties involved have agreed to concepts which provide the framework that will resolve major sticking points that have stalled progress,” said Senator West.

A new provision would return the plan to Austin for review in 7 years for further adjustment in case it does not work.

Thursday evening, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings praised the deal that he called “expensive but fair.” It will give the city a 6 member majority on a new 11 member pension board. City control was a major issue for the Mayor that was not included in earlier versions of the deal. Rawlings said it could help avoid past problems with the current employee and retiree controlled board on which just 4 of 12 members are city appointees. The complete cost to taxpayers is still being finalized as are other details of the plan.

Dallas public safety retirees sounded off Thursday morning to leaders of their pension board over what they’d heard from Austin about the deal.

“We get up every morning wondering what we’re going to hear at the end of this day,” said retired Deputy Police Chief David Elliston. “The city bends the rules however they want to to get their way. We should have equal representation.”

The Texas House unanimously approved a bill last week which Mayor Rawlings said was too hard on taxpayers. Retirees preferred that version of the deal.

“For god sakes, tell us what’s going on,” police retiree Jerry Rhodes told the pension board. “We’re letting them go down there and start pushing the Senators around.”

Pension officials are involved in talks with the Senate but refused to discuss details with retirees at the Pension Board meeting.

“We’re trying to do the best that we can for everybody,” said Pension Board Chairman Sam Friar, who is also a Dallas Fire Rescue Captain.

Retirees were already angry that Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) savings are limited to withdrawals of just $3,000 a month after large lump sum withdrawals last year further weakened the fund.

Many retirees who left their savings in the fund regret doing so.

“My husband and I wanted to go on an anniversary trip in February but it cost more than that so we didn't go, because we couldn't get the drop money," said retired Dallas Police Lieutenant Pat Sanchez. “We’ve had the pension promises for years and years and years and now they’re changing all the rules at the end of the game that we had based our retirement years on.”

Pension talks still include a possible future ‘clawback’ on DROP money they have already received.

“To me it’s just outright theft, and wrong,” Sanchez said.

Current plans would require a 2/3rds majority or 8 votes of a future 11 member pension board to take back money from retirees.

Right now, the Police and Fire Pension fund is billions of dollars short of future obligations and could be insolvent in less than ten years without cuts in benefits and increased contributions from employees and the city.

Thursday the pension board voted to sell investments in the LBJ Express and North Tarrant Express toll road projects to help raise cash.

Pension Board Member Erik Wilson, who is also a Dallas City Council Member, said he understands the anger about the pension crisis.

“By no means are we trying to hurt anyone,” he said. “We’re trying to save it for everyone.”

The Black Police Association of Greater Dallas and the Dallas Retired Police Officers Association are among the groups opposed to the deal announced by the Senators Thursday. The Dallas Police Association and several firefighter groups supported it.

Any deal approved the by the Texas Senate will require re-approval by the Texas House or compromise in a conference committee. Time is running short. The current session of the Texas Legislature ends May 29th.

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