Tablet Local

Fort Worth firefighters, city officials stymied over pensions

The city and its firefighters are still looking for middle ground in contract and pension fund negotiations, with firefighters bringing up the possibility of litigation.

The Fort Worth Professional Firefighters proposed separating 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, said Jim Tate, president of the association.

Lowell Denton of San Antonio, the private attorney representing the city, said setting aside two different funds would expose the city to litigation from its other employees. The city would also be liable for covering the increased payout if the health of the fund fails, Assistant City Manager Susan Alanis said.

“In concept, the proposal was very interesting and attractive to us. ... Y’all came to the table and said, ‘We are willing to put more money in,’” Denton said. “That is a decent, fair and honorable proposition. But I think we are stuck with a structure under the law where we don’t think we can get it done.”

The city is seeking to reduce the benefit formula from 3 percent to 2.5 percent, to remove some overtime from the pension calculations and to change the survivor benefits for future hires, Alanis said.

But Tate, during Thursday’s contract negotiations, was not pleased with the city’s reaction to the firefighter’s proposal.

“I don’t understand worrying about litigation with general employees when you know there is going to be a litigation with us if you go this way,” Tate said.

Fort Worth is already facing a federal lawsuit from two leaders in the Fort Worth Police Officers Association.

Association President Steve Hall and former President Rick Van Houten are suing based on changes to the pension benefits for general and police employees approved by the City Council in 2012. The council was seeking to close the pension fund’s unfunded liability, which was then $748 million and increased to over $1 billion in January.

Hall and Van Houten are 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 Council reduced the multiplier used in calculating benefits, raised the number of years for retirement pay and eliminated overtime in calculations in those changes.

Firefighters and the city agreed Thursday to temporarily set aside the pension portion of the contract to negotiate other points, such as overtime and sick leave policies, but Tate said it might be time to bring in a mediator.

The current contract expired Sept. 30 but has an “evergreen” period of one year. The city and firefighters have until September to negotiate new terms.