Fort Worth and its firefighters in deadlock over pension

Posted Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The city and its firefighters are in a standoff over contract and pension fund negotiations, with the city facing litigation in district court or arbitration as the possible next steps in resolving the disagreements.

The Fort Worth Professional Firefighters had proposed separating the firefighters’ pension fund from the Fort Worth Employees’ Retirement Fund, which includes other city employees, to allow firefighters to boost their contribution — now at 8.25 percent of their pay — by 4.39 percentage points without an increase in city contributions. The firefighters would then get to keep their pension benefits formula.

The city, however, maintained that breaking the funds apart would expose the city to litigation from police and fire employees. The city would also be liable for covering the increased payout if the health of the fund fails, said Assistant City Manager Susan Alanis.

“At this point, we just weren’t making any progress with the absence of the pension, so we felt like we weren’t making progress in the meetings, so there was no reason to continue to meet,” Alanis said after the meeting.

The city declared the parties were at an impasse during Wednesday’s negotiations, with the decision to pursue litigation in the hands of the firefighters association.

The city declined the association’s offer to submit the negotiations to a mediator, said Christopher Troutt, senior assistant city attorney, in an email.

Jim Tate, president of the firefighters association, said the union has not yet determined a course of action.

“We are still trying to figure out what happened,” Tate said, adding that the union had offered to negotiate the rest of the contract without the pension, but the city declined.

The association can request to have a board of three arbitrators decide on the issues, but the city can decline that option, Troutt said. If the city declines arbitration, the association can either accept the city’s terms or file a lawsuit in district court.

During the negotiations, Tate said the city’s legal concerns appear to be unfounded.

“It just seems to me that the city doesn’t want it,” Tate said at the meeting. “It has been 15 months and we still don’t have a counterproposal from the city, although we have gone back and revised ours a couple of times.”

‘Hands are tied’

Lowell Denton of San Antonio, the private attorney representing the city, replied that the city has spent hundreds of work hours and financial resources to evaluate every option the firefighters came up with, but the city’s “hands are tied.”

“It is not your fault, and it is not our fault we have issues,” Denton said.

The current contract expired Sept. 30 but has an “evergreen” period of one year. If the city and firefighters do not negotiate the terms of a new contract by then, the city’s proposed contract with the contested pension changes will take effect Oct. 1 until a court or arbitrator decides the matter.

Fort Worth is already facing a federal lawsuit from two leaders in the Fort Worth Police Officers Association after the City Council approved pension changes for general and police employees in 2012. The changes included reducing the multiplier used in calculating benefits, raising the number of years for retirement pay and eliminating overtime in calculations in those changes.

Fort Worth Police Officers Association President Steve Hall and former President Rick Van Houten are suing, accusing the city of contract impairment, violation of due process, unlawful taking of property and violating the U.S. and Texas constitutions in reducing pension benefits for future service.

The city was seeking similar terms with the firefighters in an effort to close the pension funds’ unfunded liability, which was over $1 billion in January.

This report includes material from Star-Telegram archives.

Caty Hirst, 817-390-7984 Twitter: @catyhirst

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