City, firefighters need to get past impasse

12/19/2013 5:58 PM

12/19/2013 5:59 PM

Words like impasse, deadlock and standoff, used to describe negotiations between any two parties, offer little hope for a solution, suggesting possible dire consequences for both.

Such descriptions are particularly troublesome when referring to bargaining talks between a municipality and a group of its public safety employees, such as current negotiations between the city of Fort Worth and the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters.

After a breakdown in talks over a new contract, including a new pension proposal for firefighters, the city’s chief negotiator, Assistant City Manager Susan Alanis, said there was no reason to continue to meet because no progress was being made.

The main sticking point is that firefighters want to break away from the Fort Worth Employees Retirement Fund, which includes police and other city employees, and create their own pension fund.

That is a very bad idea that the city rightly opposes, as such an arrangement could have a negative impact on retirement investment for all employees, including the firefighters.

Particularly given the fact that the city is working hard to address a $1 billion unfunded liability of its pension fund, a change of that magnitude at this time would be foolish.

The city proposed reducing the pension benefit formula multiplier from 3 percent to 2.5 percent, removing some overtime from pension calculations and altering survivor benefits for future employees.

But there’s no use discussing those issues until the divided pension fund idea is settled.

Sadly, that may now only be resolved through a lawsuit — something the firefighters have threatened — since the the city has refused to submit the negotiations to mediation.

Of course, if the city gave in to the firefighters’ demands, it could expect litigation from other employees whose benefits could be diminished as a result.

Although the current contract with firefighters expired Sept. 30, the parties have a one-year “evergreen” period in which to reach an agreement. If they don’t, the city’s proposals go into effect until, and unless, a court or arbitrator rules otherwise.

While the firefighters have a right to sue, it would be in everyone’s best interest if they and the city would return to the bargaining table in good faith with one item permanently left off: dividing the pension fund.

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