All right, now we’ve got this police and fire pension issue where we can see it and where we can begin to make our own personal decisions, thanks to yesterday’s unanimous vote by the board of directors of the Dallas Police and Fire Pension board. This is now a moral question.
Moral what, I didn’t say. Moral yes, moral no, that’s up to you. But it’s a big step ahead for all of us just to have the thing squared up enough that we can tell what we’re deciding on.
Up until now, the Dallas police and fire pension issue has been a complicated arcane financial tangle involving a lot of issues most of us are not all that good at grasping. It’s not my wheelhouse. I went for a long time in life thinking the term, actuarial, meant real, as in, “She’s not my actuarial aunt.”
In this matter, in spite of having the best of intentions, some people on the board of the fund have had to take tough unpopular votes, as in shutting down certain kinds of lump-sum withdrawals to stave off sudden death syndrome for the fund. Ducks had to be lined up and emergency precautions taken before the rest of us out here in the public could even see what the question was.
Yesterday’s vote puts it squarely. Do we, the taxpayers of Dallas, have a moral duty to provide our police and firefighters with the decent secure retirement pay they thought was promised and guaranteed to them when they took their jobs and while they did those jobs? Or not?
I’ll tell you right now that if you say no, I disagree with you. But I also recognize your right to formulate your own opinion, and I’m sure you feel you have good arguments on your side. I’m just saying that’s it, the question, the deal, the thing we have to answer: Do we have a moral duty, yes or no?
Yesterday the full board voted to endorse a system of repair that was placed before the board, before the mayor and before us, the public, last November by East Texas state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van. Flynn is chairman of the House Pensions Committee. Whatever Dallas decides to do must win a stamp of approval from the Legislature and must pass first through Flynn’s committee.
Flynn wrote a tough letter to our mayor three months ago basically warning him not to come to Austin with any excuses or proposals that would involve not meeting the promises made to Dallas cops and firefighters. The mayor had already been in Austin by then, sounding some fairly alarmist notes about possible municipal bankruptcy.
That was a very guns-drawn position for him to take. It was the mayor saying indirectly that if the cops and firemen keep pushing the city, the city might take a dive, go bankrupt and let the pension fund go to hell.
And in case you think I’m overstating it, the city’s chief financial officer doubled down a month ago. She proposed that the city think about starting a new pension system, transfer all the new hires into it and just let the old system and its subscribers drift out to sea on their own, an idea the executive director of the pension fund decried as the “ice floe plan.”
In his letter to the mayor, Flynn, a conservative Republican, told Rawlings to forget about ever coming down to Austin with any plan that involves taking a dive. And Flynn very directly told the mayor he needs to leave his sheaf of excuses for the plan’s failure back in Dallas.
“The problems with your pension plans did not occur overnight,” Flynn wrote. “The fact that there was a problem was well documented over time and prior city leaders knew or should have known that something should have been done. Years of avoiding responsibility on the part of the city by bypassing meetings only projects a show of apathy towards the process.”
Flynn bluntly dismissed the city’s characterization of Dallas police and fire officers as having taken over management of the pension fund so they could operate it as their own insider scam to enrich themselves. He cited three votes in recent years by pension fund members to reduce their own benefits as their part of pulling the fund back into a better condition.
“Has it been suggested how deep you want them to cut their earned benefits?” Flynn asked the mayor. “Additionally, I am not aware of any offer of additional monetary support that has come from the City of Dallas. Nothing works until that happens.”
The mayor’s position and that of a business group formed to give him backup is that the most important thing in this whole crisis is for City Hall not to do anything that might involve a tax hike. In fact the most pointed item of contrast between Flynn’s proposal in his letter and the position taken by the mayor and the backup business group involves the city using pension bonds to raise money to help repair the fund.
Flynn says: “The City should go to the extent of its bonding authority and look towards Pension Obligation Bonds to the billion dollar extent as Houston is doing.”
The mayor has said the city must not borrow money for the fund because that might impair the city’s ability to borrow money for “transformational projects.” The business group says borrowing money might raise property taxes.
And, yes, all the money we borrow does potentially raise taxes, because we have to pay the money back. Money we borrow to spend on so-called transformational real estate projects has to be paid back, too.
The development community will tell us we would lose money if those projects were not built. Sure. But we also lose money if hordes of people decide to get the hell out of Dodge because crime is crazy and their houses are all burning down. We’re generally better off if we run the city responsibly and predictably, every little chance we get.
When I first read Flynn’s letter and then again in rereading it yesterday, I was struck by how this entire scenario flips my stock sense of who’s a conservative and who’s whatever the opposite may be. Here is this this quite conservative rancher from East Texas telling our mayor and the business establishment in Dallas that they have to come up with a plan that honors the city’s commitments to its first responders and that no excuses will be accepted for failure.
So what does that make Flynn, some way-out pension-loving libtard? On the other hand, even uttering bankruptcy or that ice floe deal seems like the sort of thing you’d hear from a bunch of anarchists, not conservative business leaders.
Flynn’s plan includes some tough haircuts on retirement benefits, from cost-of-living to age of retirement. It’s definitely a shared sacrifice plan. But his plan also assumes an important moral concept: However this problem may have occurred, in spite of the tons of blame to be justly assigned to all sides and parties, the city has an overarching moral obligation to keep its promise to its first responders. However it does that, almost whatever it takes, the city must see that police and fire officers leave city employment with the security they believe they were promised.
To me, if you’re going to threaten to cut the cops and the firefighters loose without the pension they thought had coming, you need to at least be honest enough to do it right when they’re walking into your darkened backyard to find the burglar or about to climb into your upstairs window with a hose.
“HEY, BY THE WAY, I’M AGAINST YOUR PENSION!”
Doesn’t really count doing it later.
This will come to us eventually, either in a bond election next November or maybe as soon as May in the upcoming City Council elections. When you and I begin to weigh the issue, we inevitably will ask ourselves good questions. What were they promised? Who says? Was the promise really what the cops and firefighters now say it was?
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And as with all moral questions, this one will come to some very personal assessments. Do we honestly believe the cops and the firefighters, the men and women who risk their lives for us, would lie to us about it? Do we really believe they have been operating a scam?
Or isn’t it more likely they have been going out every day and night and doing jobs we asked them to do, jobs involving mortal risk, jobs requiring courage and concentration, and they probably have not been sitting around a whole lot with calculators computing actuarial tables and real estate risk assessments. Isn’t it more likely they took us at our word and forgot about it because they had other things on their minds? Trusted us, in other words.
Isn’t that what this is really about? Trust? Our word?
Our word is a big concept. It kind of leaps right over the actuarial tables. Sometimes your word is all you need to know. A lot of times it’s all you can know. People can make anything too complicated to understand. You just have to go back to your word and what it means to you. That’s where we are now.