City Hall

Let’s Take Back the Boondoggles Built While Dallas Hid Its Pension Fund Mess

If the Flynn bill goes to the governor as it stands, then the pension fund will have to claw back benefits and savings from  its own members and beneficiaries.
If the Flynn bill goes to the governor as it stands, then the pension fund will have to claw back benefits and savings from its own members and beneficiaries. Witthaya Silaphong Shutterstock
Hey, here’s an idea. If we have to do some kind of claw-back because the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund is in trouble — you know, send out the guys with the baseball bats and have them repossess those overpaid pension benefits — how about we start with the half-billion dollars the mayor and the City Council got the taxpayers to pony up for a new city-owned convention hotel downtown?

The boondogglemeisters who run this town sure as hell couldn’t have gotten their tax-funded hotel by the voters if they had told anybody at the time that the police and fire pension fund was about to be $1.6 billion in the hole.

“Or what about their bridges?” City Council member Scott Griggs asked me yesterday.

Oh, that’s right. That’s a couple hundred million more in public transportation funds we spent building fake suspension bridges over the Trinity River so we could say we had bridges designed by famed Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava.

What if the boondogglemeisters had been honest about it? What if they had gone to the public and said, “OK, because nothing is free and money doesn’t grow on trees, you do have to make a choice here between having fake suspension bridges by a famous Spanish starchitect or having cops and firefighters.”

How do you think that election would have gone? I would predict a vote of zero percent for the starchitect, 100 percent for the cops and firefighters plus dipping the mayor and City Council in tar, covering them with chicken feathers, placing them on a rail and carrying them out of town with much whiskey drinking.

They know that. That’s why the meisters didn’t mention the pension when arranging their boondoggles. They wanted that hotel. They wanted those bridges. They wanted to be able to give away hundreds of millions, probably billions of dollars in unexamined, unaudited, good-old-boy tax breaks through the city’s so-called tax increment finance districts. The last thing they wanted was an audit of anything, least of all the pension fund.

Now the same people who presided over this enormous financial catastrophe — What else would you call $1.6 billion in red ink? — are seriously talking about claw-backs in which the benefits of widows and orphans would be garnished and savings accounts of cops and firefighters effectively seized.

Well, wait a minute. Whatever benefits the cops and firefighters have received or still have coming from the pension fund, they earned those by working and by living up to a contract. If we want to go looking for some side-deals too sleazy to put on paper, let’s look at all the profit City Hall has earned for itself by lying to the public about the pension fund.

In government, where the money is hard enough to keep track of anyway, failing to do regular hard audits is the same thing as hiding the ball.

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Do I really mean lying? Oh, absolutely. Look, there are two kinds of lying. There’s the direct in-your-face lie that you or I might tell each other in a conversation. But then when we talk about elected officials — the people on whom the voters have bestowed the public trust — there is an even worse kind of lying, which is hiding the ball.

We hear all kinds of things about culpability: The pension fund was badly run; it made bad investments; there were too many cops and firefighters on the board; they made self-interested decisions about benefit levels.

Just for grins and to cut down on time, let’s say that’s all true. I don’t believe it is all true, but in order to get the game going, let’s say it is.

City Hall is still in charge. The mayor and the City Council are still ultimately responsible. They are the grown-ups. It is their house, their family. If something is wrong — if it is drifting toward catastrophe — it is their job to find it, see it and do whatever it takes to fix it.

Too many cops and firefighters on the pension board? Too many restraints in state pension law? Tell the public what the problems are. Get the law changed. If you can’t do that, then institute some other kind of reform within the law. Do something. Don’t just stand there.

In government, where the money is hard enough to keep track of anyway, failing to do regular hard audits is the same thing as hiding the ball. The mayor and City Council have always had authority to audit the pension fund. If the fund pushed back on that — and it did — then that was not just a red flag. It was black smoke and flames.

But here’s the thing. If you have another agenda — your own agenda — then you won’t want the public to see or smell the black smoke and flames.

Council members Griggs and Philip Kingston, both of whom are on the pension board now, talk about the labor peace that elected officials bought for themselves in the late 1980s and early 1990s. City Hall either actively encouraged, looked away or at least didn’t ask questions when the pension fund instituted cost of living and special retirement savings benefits that now may have turned out to be too sweet.

But that was the era when the big delta was beginning to open between police and fire pay in the city and pay in the suburbs and other major cities. Dallas police and fire officers were underpaid in comparison, but City Hall could tell them they should stay in Dallas anyway because of the fat pension benefits here.

The same elected officials could tell voters not to worry. There was no need for tax hikes to support all of those fatter pension benefits. That might take tax money away from the boondoggles. No, no, everything was under control because of, well, you know, Wall Street. Or something.

Part of what the current mayor and his cadre on the council want now is more local control over the fund. Sure, I remember local control. I remember former City Council member Don Hill, now in the pen, trying to persuade the pension fund to put more money into crooked subsidized housing deals. Local control the Dallas City Hall way: Hey, gimme some of that local, will ya?

But then when it all comes crashing down, when, surprise-surprise, a City Hall deal born of deception and irresponsibility turns out to have problems, City Hall points this way and that. There is almost a tone of outrage: HEY, HOW DID OUR PENSION FUND GET MESSED UP? DO YOU KNOW? They have an absolute allergy to accountability.

I just came across this issue in, of all places, the litigation over Charles Groden, the Kennedy assassination expert whom the city has persecuted for a decade for selling books and tapes in Dealey Plaza, which is not illegal. The city’s argument to a federal court was that Groden could not sue the city for civil rights violations because he could not identify the specific person at City Hall who was responsible for his persecution.

A federal appeals court tossed that out on the grounds that everybody knows who is responsible for what happens at City Hall. The law says who is responsible. The law says elected officials are responsible. Everybody else at City Hall works for them.

“We hold that a plaintiff is not required to single out the specific policymaker,” the court ruled. “The statutorily authorized policymaker is the Dallas City Council.”

How could anybody not know that? Think of it as a family. The parents are responsible. They’re the grown-ups. It’s on them. The mayor and the City Council are the parents of City Hall. It’s their job to hire cops and firefighters and keep them on the job.

click to enlarge Any plan that involves garnishing the benefits of widows and orphans will make us feel, quite properly, like throwing up. - LINDA BESTWICK SHUTTERSTOCK
Any plan that involves garnishing the benefits of widows and orphans will make us feel, quite properly, like throwing up.
Linda Bestwick Shutterstock
If the police and fire pension fund goes to hell, if nobody will work here because the city is taking money back from widows and orphans, then that’s on the mayor and council. There is no one else to put it on. They shouldn’t have let it happen. Now that it is happening, it’s on their shoulders to fix it.

The mayor and his group have been insisting that there is no claw-back of widows and orphans in their plan or the plan being offered by East Texas Republican State Rep. Dan Flynn, chair of the House pension committee. That’s a subterfuge.

The Flynn bill as it stands will leave a $450 million hole in the goal of 30-year solvency, and it will allow the pension plan only two years to fix that hole. If the hole is not fixed, the city will be absolved of its obligation to help fill the hole.

Benefit reductions won’t be enough. There is no option available to the fund for filling the hole, if it has to do that by itself, that will not include claw-back. The fund’s only option will be to take back already paid benefits and interest on savings, which, by the way, will lead to years of litigation as an unconstitutional taking.

The other option, still open until Flynn’s bill goes to the governor, is for the city to divert a portion of its mass transit sales tax to fix the pension fund. That way, the hole gets repaired by the city before a new pension board takes over under the new bill. And no taxes go up.

When you look at all the political juice and gravy the boondogglemeisters have gained for themselves by allowing this situation to fester, when you consider the absolute horror of clawing back benefits from police and fire widows and orphans, taking a modest hit on mass transit seems like a pretty small, very reasonable price to pay. And that doesn’t even take into account its being a solution that won’t make us all want to throw up.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze