FORT WORTH -- City Council members appear set Tuesday to approve a four-year contract covering 1,525 police officers that gives pay raises but retains control over Fort Worth's underfunded pension plan.Council members interviewed said they believe the contract, ratified by 83 percent of Fort Worth Police Officers Association members voting, is fair and modest and won't have a significant impact on the general fund budget, which faces a $50 million shortfall going into 2014."It is a tough budget environment, but what we settled on is fair and balanced, and now we know exactly what our expenses are for the next three years," Mayor Betsy Price said."It's nice to know what you're facing. And it's highly unlikely we would ever get to anything [with the police talks] without some pay raises," Price said.The contract, which would run through 2016, will increase the city's costs an estimated total $34.5 million through the four years. This year's city general fund budget is $583 million. The contract adds $706,000 in expense to the current year's budget, said Horatio Porter, the city's chief financial officer.Even with many police officers still angry over significant changes the City Council made to the pension last fall, Sgt. Steve Hall, president of the Police Officers Association, said his membership largely viewed the offer as fair."We wanted to get it codified and move on," Hall said. "There wasn't a lot of debate about it."The current police contract expired last September, and the two sides are in a one-year "evergreen" period. If that expires without a contract this September, the city would have to do away with one senior rank, demote some employees, and make changes to the hiring process, Hall said.The new contract includes pay raises of 1 percent for 2013-14, which kicks in Oct. 1, 2 percent for 2014-15; 1 percent at the beginning of the 2015-16 budget year and 2 percent in the middle of that period.The police association's most recent contract in 2008 included pay raises of 3, 3, 3.5, and 3.25 percent for the four years."Step" raises for years of tenure stay the same under the new contract -- 5 percent for each of the first four years and 2.5 percent every other year after that until a cap hits at the 16th year.The contract gives the city more freedom and budget room to hire officers from other agencies; implements education requirements for newly promoted lieutenants and captains; gives employees rights to view evidence collected against them in internal affairs investigations; gives guaranteed tuition reimbursement, matching a city policy for other employees; allows the hiring of more civilian crime-scene personnel; and simplifies the pay differential for different shifts. It gives the police association the right to reopen contract talks if Fort Worth's firefighters, who are in contract negotiations, get a better pension deal."Retirement's an issue we still hope the city will talk to us about; I think that topic is still relevant," Hall said.The city and police association are in state district court in Fort Worth over the legality of the pension changes.Council members interviewed said no objection to the police contract has surfaced among them ahead of Tuesday's vote.Although the city faces a difficult budget season this summer, Price and other council members said there shouldn't be big budget gaps after 2014.They also said they want to look at giving raises to other city employees, including general employees, who aren't covered by contracts and have complained that they get short shrift compared to police and fire."We're going to have to be looking at pay raises for not just police, but fire and all of our city employees," Mayor Pro Tem W.B. "Zim" Zimmerman said. "You can't continue to ask city employees who perform well to continue to do that without ... pay raises."'Meet and confer'The city's talks with the police association were governed by Texas' "meet and confer" statute, which doesn't require participation by either side. The city's talks with the firefighters are governed by collective bargaining, which requires negotiation."We don't have to have an agreement with police; we do with fire," Zimmerman said. "But I think anytime you can get two sides to agree on something that's reasonable -- and I think this is reasonable -- then you've got a little win."I would not say the police [raise] was an exorbitant pay raise, but a little is better than nothing," he said.Councilman Dennis Shingleton, who said he plans to vote for the contract, said, "I think that when you're putting people in harm's way, I think you need to maintain the quality of officer that the job demands. That's the bottom line with this thing.""You just can't continue to bring officers in, continue to expect them to perform and not provide any increases," said Councilman Frank Moss, who also expects to vote for the contract.Scott Nishimura, 817-390-7808Twitter: @JScottNishimura
Retirement Fund lowering projections
The Fort Worth Employees' Retirement Fund board is lowering the assumed rate of return on its investments, paring it by a quarter-point to 8 percent annually, officials with the fund said.
The fund also plans a vote at its April 24 meeting on several other changes to its assumptions, including projecting a lower city pay scale and lower base pay boosts from factors such as overtime. It projected lower overtime for police and general employees as groups, but higher overtime for firefighters, based on estimates from the city.
The actuary, the Segal Co., estimated the pension's unfunded liability at $880 million before the changes in assumptions, up from $748 million last year. The higher number reflects the "smoothing in" of bad results from the recent downturn, said Ruth Ryerson, the fund's executive director.
With the changes in assumptions, the unfunded liability rises to more than $1 billion, the actuary estimated.
The actuary, however, didn't project the impact of significant benefit cuts for existing employees scheduled to take effect Oct. 1, or of an upcoming employee election regarding a cost-of-living adjustment to their benefits. The city has pushed that election off until October, from early this year, Ryerson said.
The actuary will make those projections early next year, she said.
The fund has been pressure to lower its assumed rate of return to match more anemic market returns from recent years. That would push the unfunded liability up, putting pressure on the city to make more benefit cuts or put more money into the plan.
The city now contributes 19.97 percent of payroll into the pension annually, and council members have said that voters don't want to put any more in.
-- Scott Nishimura