City must hold line on fire contract

Posted Tuesday, Sep. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Fort Worth associations representing firefighters and police have been forceful and effective at looking after members’ salary, pay increases and retirement benefits, sometimes to the detriment of the “general” city employees and the city budget as a whole.

Last year the City Council, responding to calls to harness the out-of-control pension fund, made major revisions to the benefits package for employes and approved a new contract with police — under its “meet and confer” agreement — that included modest pay increases and a different (and more rational) means of calculating retirement pay.

The agreement was hailed as a major financial and employee relations achievement, although city officials knew they would have to negotiate this year with the firefighters whose collective bargaining contract includes pensions.

City officials and residents alike have great respect for these first-responders, defenders of life and property who daily put their lives on the line simply by showing up for work. But the city must also keep its financial accounts in order.

City officials Friday held their first bargaining session since April with representatives of the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters Association and found little ground for agreement. Although the association was willing to increase firefighters’ contributions to retirement benefits, it wants the city pension plan split up so that firefighters would have their own separate pension fund.

The association also wants a guaranteed annual pay raise over four years and continuation of the variable cost-of-living adjustment, which the city wants phased out in favor of a fixed 2 percent guaranteed annual increase.

The firefighters’ proposal to split the city’s retirement fund, creating a separate pension for its members, is short-sighted, ill-advised and overly selfish.

Separate pension funds would decrease the investment pool of both entities.

Such a scheme also is likely to bring with it more lawsuits. Other employees’ benefits would be at risk, and the police agreement allows the police association to renegotiate if firefighters get a better retirement deal.

There’s a significant question of how much money from the current plan would be handed over for the firefighters’ separate fund.

Although FWPFA officials saw the city’s concerns during negotiations last week as throwing up “roadblocks,” the questions raised by city representatives were on point. Specifically, the firefighters’ assumption of an 8 percent annual return on pension fund investments is overly optimistic.

Voters gave police and fire employees the right to negotiate, but residents should rightly expect that both groups would be reasonable. It is not too much to ask that while these public safety workers look out for their personal welfare that they also consider the overall economic impact on the city.

City negotiators must stand firm. Some differences between the contracts for firefighers and police might be expected, but breaking up the pension fund is not good for city employees as a whole and would be an unacceptable policy change.

The variable COLA must be replaced, and any other changes in the pension formula must be based on reasonable investment return projections.

City officials have gone to great lengths to overcome projected funding shortfalls in the coming year’s budget. The public pockets are only so deep.

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