The barrier in talks between the city of Fort Worth and its firefighters over contract terms outlining pension fund rules might best be described by a line from the the 1967 Academy Award-winning film, Cool Hand Luke:
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
And while negotiation by definition implies communication and compromise on both sides of an issue, the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters Association is simply wrong in its refusal to accept reality. That reality is that it is not in the interest of the city or its other employees for firefighter pensions to be set up as a stand-alone fund.
The firefighters seemingly have accepted that the city has had to make changes in the pension fund because of its $1 billion unfunded liability. Yet their offer to raise their own contributions, but only to an isolated fund, is not acceptable.
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The Fort Worth Police Officers Association last March approved a new contract in spite of major changes to the pension fund last fall, but firefighters, whose pension negotiations coincide with contract discussions, want to break away from the Fort Worth Employees’ Retirement Fund and create a separate pension fund.
This Editorial Board has called that idea shortsighted, ill-advised and overly selfish since it was first proposed. The fact that the firefighters association is threatening a suit if it doesn’t get its way confirms that assessment.
City officials have been advised that separating the funds could affect the retirement investment of all city employees, including the firefighters. Such a move also would invite litigation from other municipal workers whose benefits could be diminished in a fund with weaker investment opportunities.
In not recognizing those obvious drawbacks, the firefighters’ leaders once again show they are more concerned about their individual gain than the overall economic health of the city, a city that has been quite generous to its public safety employees.
In addition to reducing the benefit formula from 3 percent to 2.5 percent, the city’s negotiators have proposed removing some overtime from pension calculations and changing the survivor benefits for future hires.
A one-year “evergreen” period in the old contract means the city and firefighters have until next September to reach an agreement. Both sides have decided to put the pension matter aside for now as they discuss other matters like sick leave and overtime.
That may be wise for now, but the city’s stand on the pension issue should not change.