Fort Worth wins partial victory in suit with its firefighters

Posted Thursday, Jun. 05, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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The city has won a partial victory in the lawsuit filed by the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters, with the court refusing Monday to impose the firefighters’ terms for a new contract.

However, a second allegation in the lawsuit — that the city failed to negotiate in good faith with the firefighters association — is still pending in the court.

State District Judge David L. Evans ruled that the firefighters association can immediately appeal his partial summary judgment on the contract issue instead of waiting for a decision on the claim about failing to negotiate in good faith.

“Months, if not years, of unnecessary litigation and court time will be avoided if this appeal goes forward at this time. Moreover, the critical labor negotiations between the City of Fort Worth and its firefighters will benefit from an early resolution of this important question,” Evans wrote.

The lawsuit was filed in January after city negotiators refused to take the contract talks before an arbitration board and they refused to work with a mediator to break the logjam over pension, wages, overtime and other details.

Instead, the City Council voted unanimously in January to approve a resolution outlining cuts in pension benefits for current firefighters and future hires, leaving the firefighters association with two options — accept the city’s contract or sue the city.

The council resolution reduces the multiplier used to calculate benefits from 3 percent to 2.5 percent and raised the number of high-salary years used to determine a firefighter’s retirement pay to five years. Overtime pay is not included, unless it is overtime built into the pay base.

Currently a firefighter’s retirement pay is based on the three highest-salary years, the retirement multiplier is 3 percent, and the final calculation of retirement benefits can include overtime.

Members of the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters voted 511 “against” and zero “for” the city’s offer during six days of voting, Jan. 2-8. The members unanimously voted for the pursuit of judicial determination to settle the lawsuit.

Members of the association were not immediately available for comment Monday.

The association had proposed separating the firefighters’ pension fund from the Fort Worth Employees’ Retirement Fund, which includes police and other city employees, to allow firefighters to boost their contribution — now at 8.25 percent of their pay — by 4.39 percentage points. The increase would not require an increase in city contributions.

In an emailed statement, the city of Fort Worth said, “We are pleased with the judge’s ruling and believe it is consistent with the court of appeals decisions on this matter.”

Unfunded liability

The city has an unfunded liability of $1.127 billion as of January for its pension fund, an increase from 2013 of $1.077 billion.

The amount of obligation may fluctuate after other changes for police and city employees, which the council voted on in October 2012, take effect.

The reductions for general employees and police affected future service, not benefits already accrued, with the city reducing the multiplier used in calculating benefits, raising the number of years for service for retirement pay and eliminating overtime in the calculations.

The city is already facing a lawsuit from police on the changes. Steve Hall, former president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association; and Rick Van Houten, the current president, filed a federal suit in November 2012. A federal judge ordered the city and the police association into mediation last month.

The lawsuit alleges that the city violated the Texas Constitution in cutting benefits promised to officers when they were hired.

The city, however, has said that breaking the funds apart would expose the city to litigation from other employees and that the city would also be liable for covering the increased payout if the health of the fund fails.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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

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