FW City Council stands firm but fair with firefighters’ pension benefits

The Fort Worth City Council, in an effort to shore up the troubled city employee pension plan and to ensure fairness for all employee groups, voted last week to change some benefits for firefighters.

The changes, approved on a 6-3 vote, will bring firefighters in line with police officers and general employees, whose pension benefits were changed in 2012.

Under the newly adopted revisions to the plan, which firefighters not unexpectedly see as unfair, the multiplier used to calculate benefits will be reduced from 3 percent to 2.5 percent in future years; retirement pay going forward will be based on a firefighter’s salary for the highest five years rather than three; and unscheduled overtime will not be included in the pay calculations.

It was a prudent move by the council, but the head of the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters Association accused those who voted in the majority of yielding to the wishes of the powerful business community by taking an action that will force fire department personnel to have to work much longer to be able to afford to retire.

Jim Tate, the association’s president, said the council’s action amounted to a “taking,” and he warned that as a result the city’s residents one day will have “old men and women” — perhaps in their 70s — responding to emergencies.

He said his group, which has collective bargaining rights, plans to sue the city, joining with two police officers who already have filed suit in federal court over the pension fund changes.

Earlier this year, firefighters filed a suit when the city announced its intentions to move forward with the benefits reductions. The city refused to accept a new contract offer that called for a separate retirement fund for firefighters, breaking them away from police and general employees.

A state district judge sided with the city on the issue by declining to impose the firefighter’s terms for a new contract.

The City Council last week approved an agreed-upon new four-year pact for firefighters, including a schedule for annual raises. But the contract did not address the pension.

The city pension fund has an unfunded liability of more than $1 billion. Measures must be taken to address that.

Necessary steps include making adjustments to benefits. The city’s contributions have more than doubled since 2005 to about $35 million annually.

In defending the council’s actions last week, Mayor Betsy Price told the firefighters’ representative that it was the council’s responsibility to make sure the funds are there when the youngest of them retire.

“We’ll stand strong in our principles to put Fort Worth on a fiscally responsible plan to ensure that the benefits are there when you’re ready to draw them,” she said.

While the litigious and adversarial relationship between the city and its two public safety employee groups is regrettable, seeking help from the courts may be the only way this issue will be resolved.

Firefighters and police officers have been treated quite well in Fort Worth, and the city has been very generous over the years.

The claim that these men and women will have to work into their 70s to get the benefits they enjoy today is an exaggeration at best.

The current average retirement age of a firefighter, according to the city retirement board, is 53 years and four months.

The average base pay for a civil service fire employee is $69,023, and the average actual pay (including overtime) for those employees is $86,949.

Someone would have to work about 25 years under the old plan to replace 75 per cent of their income. An employee starting today will have to work about five additional years to reach that goal. That still puts them nowhere close to 70 years old.

As this Editorial Board has urged before, the council must stand firm and be fair to all employees.

This council’s recent action meets those criteria.

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