Fort Worth’s police officers and firefighters are in the business of rescues.
This may be the biggest of their careers.
Together with other city employees, the city council and, not incidentally, the taxpayers, they must help the community rescue the city public employees pension fund.
It is facing a $1.6 billion shortfall in the coming years — an amount equal to what it costs to run Fort Worth for an entire year — and experts say it will run dry by 2048. The mere prospect of it has prompted credit rating agencies to downgrade the city twice, and to warn of a third downgrade if the fund isn’t fixed.
The city council hopes to approve a fix at its meeting Tuesday. But even if it does, city employees representing more than half the workforce must vote to concur, likely after the first of the year.
Shoring up the pension fund, already the subject of three years’ worth of meetings and negotiation, will be a convoluted financial and personnel maze the council must navigate on our behalf. What money to add from where and from whom. What to ask of pensioners, future pensioners, newer employees who won’t collect cost-of-living adjustments and, of course, taxpayers.
It will require cool heads that take into account not only actuarial fact but also the sacred pact we’ve made with those who protect and serve us. It will necessitate shared sacrifice.
Of course, those who wear uniforms and scramble to all manner of calamities have already made more sacrifices than most. Here’s a humbling notion: These men and women in fire and law enforcement — like our military — do more to protect our families than we will ever likely be called upon to do ourselves. How do you thank someone for that?
Answer: With the retirement support we’ve long promised. That’s not even in question.
The only questions are the extent of that support — and what happens if we can’t agree on it.
It’s up to all the parties to come together on that first question, to avoid the second.
But what if we don’t agree on a fix? The answer to that question appears to be quite uncertain and unsavory. We’ll not only risk further downgrades to the city’s credit worthiness, but will gamble that the resulting solution out of Austin isn’t even more painful — to all parties — than the ones the council will consider Tuesday.
There’s no reason to believe the state’s medicine will be any better at relieving our pension headache than ours is — and, in fact, it’s likely to only be more painful. Fort Worth has good and powerful advocates in Austin, including state Sen. Jane Nelson, chair of the Senate Finance Committee. But asking the state to fix the city’s pension woes is asking for trouble. Taxpayers and pensioners alike would be throwing themselves on the mercy of a big state with lots of other competing interests to juggle.
It is in everyone’s best interests to solve this here and now — with everyone pitching in.