Tension Fund

Concerns about the soundness of the city's retirement fund are buried in a political mud fight

But pension trustees and their advisors argue that a more conservative 8.25 percent rate of return is more likely, and that assumption leads to their dire forecasts of the fund's future.

If Ware is right, the fund is fine. If the trustees are right, somebody has to start putting more money into the fund, or benefits must be cut. The estimates of each side also dovetail nicely with their political agendas, notes one city council member.

"It is not a coincidence that the board came up with something that calls for the city to contribute [more money]," says councilman Larry Duncan. "And it is not a coincidence that the city came up with something that calls for it to contribute zero."

Though they are dueling over numbers and percentage points, the fight between Ware and Stalnaker has also developed into a personal feud.

Ware, who won a Purple Heart during his stint in Vietnam, has exhibited little grace in his contests with Stalnaker, who has shown that he holds a few cards in this game. Ware, on the other hand, may be short a few cards himself.

For starters, the city manager has no direct responsibility over the pension fund, which was designed to be independent specifically so that the pensions of city workers are not subject to the city's budget needs. The city manager can recommend how much the city should contribute to the fund on behalf of its employees.

But the legal limits on Ware's control over the fund have not stopped him from hiring three different consultants to produce reports blessing the fund's health.

Even some council members who agree with Ware question the bulldozer tactics he is using in making his case. "I wouldn't have handled it the way he did," says one council member, who asked not to be identified. "No one would have, except him."

Stalnaker, an Odessa native who the same council member describes as "very intelligent but with an ego the size of West Texas," has also expended tremendous effort lining up cheerleaders for his side.

Early on in the fight, Stalnaker asked a state panel that oversees municipal pension funds to take a look at the fund's financial condition. Like Ware, the state panel has no real authority to dictate the fund's policies. But dragging the issue down to Austin helped Stalnaker generate publicity and momentum for his fight.

And by blaming the fund's problems on bad actuarial projections, Stalnaker is sidestepping his own responsibility for the fund's condition. Stalnaker served as chairman of the trustees board for four years, resigning in February when his fight with Ware was at fever pitch.

"Randy takes no responsibility," complains councilman Duncan. But Duncan and others say Ware and Stalnaker equally share the blame for the fractious dispute. Both of the men, Duncan says, are failing to grasp what really matters--that 7,000 city workers don't know if their pensions are safe, and taxpayers don't know if the city will be asked to pony up more money for the fund.

"It ain't about egos. It ain't about compromise," Duncan says. "It is about making cold, hard business decisions that affect the future of the city work force."

The career path of 46-year-old Randy Stalnaker does not appear to be one of a man looking for a fight. What he does, after all, is look after sewers.

A 19-year city veteran, Stalnaker supervises 215 employees in what is politely called wastewater collection administration. He came to government work after earning a degree in psychology, starting in human resources and moving to the sewer department after taking some graduate business courses. Since joining the department, Stalnaker has risen to one of the top three sewer system jobs.

In 1989, Stalnaker first ran for election to the board that oversees the city's pension fund. He was inspired, he says, by one of his supervisors who had served on the board.

The Dallas Employees Retirement Fund board has five members. Two are elected by city employees, two are appointed by the city council, and the fifth spot automatically goes to the city's auditor. (Largely as a result of the current fracas, the city council has placed a proposition on the ballot in this May's city election that would change the board's structure and give the council more influence. The council would have three appointees instead of two, and one of the three would be a council member. The city auditor would lose his seat.)

Stalnaker won his first race for the board, and has served on it ever since. He was elected chairman by his fellow members four years ago. In the midst of his battle with Ware, Stalnaker stepped down from the chairmanship. "It became really apparent to me that personalities had become the issue and not the facts," Stalnaker said in his February letter of resignation. "I hope that by relinquishing the Chair, the improvements in communication between the Board and the Dallas City Council and City Manager's office necessary to resolve this matter will occur."

But Stalnaker stayed on the board, and he has stayed in the middle of the fight. Ware, Stalnaker says, is a formidable foe.

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