Let me get this straight. We’re really mad at the cops and the firefighters because fixing their pension fund is going to be expensive. So we’re just not going to have any more cops or firefighters? Or what? Hire people from the day-labor dorms? Outsource it to India?
No, look, I’m serious, and it’s because I keep hearing what sounds like crazy talk from places that are supposed to be the city’s highest realms of responsible leadership. It’s like some kind of cold washing of the hands. “OK for them, they let their pension fund get in the ditch, so they can just go to hell.”
No, no, no. They don’t go to hell. They go to the suburbs. We go to hell. The end of the pension story, one way or another, has to be that Dallas stops hemorrhaging first responders and regains its ability to recruit and retain high quality officers to fight crime, fight fire and save our lives.
How can that be complicated? How can that be hard to see? How can anyone not understand the crisis we face? This week Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs revealed a public safety emergency in the city that should be the first item of business in any calculation or conversation about first responders.
Griggs produced projections for the police department showing that even at the department’s most aspirational rate of hiring and training, Dallas will see almost 500 unfilled uniform positions through next year and over four hundred empty slots for years to come, giving us the smallest police force in a decade. Recruitment, already a growing dilemma nationwide, is hugely exacerbated here by the high number of experienced officers who are leaving.
Not that the police and fire pension fund is not a mess. Not that rank-and-file first responders who sat on the pension board don’t share the blame. But obviously the city’s police and fire pension problems have to be fixed in a way that will help the city overcome a terrible attrition problem in uniformed ranks. Even the best finger-pointer on earth with the world’s longest finger of blame can’t change that one simple fact.
A very slim silver lining in this cloud at the moment is offered by the fact that the Legislature, where the Dallas pension mess must be sorted out, is ready to vote on a bailout bill. The bill is nobody’s favorite child, but Dallas leaders failed to craft their own solution. We knew if we went down to Austin without a consensus solution already in hand then legislators from other parts of the state were going to impose one on us.
The bill that is about to come to the House floor has in it one overarching virtue: It will render the Dallas police and fire pension fund solvent and bring to an end any talk of a potential collapse of the fund. The people who step in front of bullets, walk into fires and pull us from car wrecks will know that if they live to the ends of their careers they will have retirements to count on.
Accepting and supporting the Flynn bill, named for the chairman of the House pension committee, is sort of like hearing that your invalid loved one is out of money and will be coming to live with you. Once again, that high-end recreational vehicle appears not to be coming your way in this lifetime. But you still have to do what you have to do.
And yet incredibly at this final hour, the mayor of Dallas, Mike Rawlings, and his supporters on the wealthy private Dallas Citizens Council want to yank the rug from under the Flynn bill, get it voted down and then take their chances on chaos.
Last week Jere Thompson, heir to the 7-Eleven fortune and chairman of the Dallas Citizens Council, had an op-ed piece in The Dallas Morning News arguing that the Flynn bill should be killed because the pension problem is the fault of the pension’s own members and the proposed solution will cost taxpayers too much. To make his point, he dredged back through ample evidence of fiduciary misfeasance:
“The beneficiaries voted to invest in high-risk, speculative, illiquid assets that collapsed in value,” Thompson wrote. “The beneficiaries also paid themselves annual cost-of-living-adjustment increases of 4 percent during the past decade, more than twice the actual COLA increases paid by Social Security. DROP even paid guaranteed 8 percent returns, compounding the cost-of-living-adjustment increases.”
True, true, true. Very illiquid of them. I always want to offer at least one caveat when I hear that argument. No, the beneficiaries, meaning cops and firefighters, did not really make all those bad decisions, because they were out fighting crooks and fires and saving people on the freeway.
Yes, I know, you can make a perfectly valid legalistic argument that they were all responsible for what their chosen representatives did on the pension board. But that assumes the average member really paid attention or understood what was going on at the investment level. They all were required to be members of the fund, and most of them probably read the fund’s annual reports the way I read stuff like that – by stacking it somewhere until it gets accidentally thrown out.
The blame for not seeing red flags years ago, by the way, is very evenly shared between the beneficiaries, who were part of a bad equation, and City Hall, which always had ultimate responsibility because it was City Hall. If you ask me, City Hall was Bad Santa.
For example, in the sprawling federal Dallas City Hall corruption trial in 2010, which produced multiple tough sentences for bribery and fraud, the FBI brought evidence, never fully resolved, that a sitting City Council member who was also on the pension board had been promising juice from the pension fund to people he wanted to recruit as co-conspirators. City Hall never lifted one finger to look for fire beneath that smoke.
At this point, what good does this kind of finger-pointing do any of us anyway? We know the fund is in the ditch. We must assume officers will continue to flee the police and fire departments if it isn’t fixed. And, yes, fixing it will be expensive.
Please believe me, I am not saying that Thompson is automatically wrong to object to a solution that would tack the city’s share of the fix directly onto local property taxes. In fact there is another even more dire form of attrition that can result from soaring property taxes. At some point, residents and businesses will begin to flee the city if they think Dallas taxes are a bad deal for what they get out of them.
But here is where we hit another huge credibility bump. Council members Griggs and Philip Kingston have proposed a repair that would shelter the city’s property tax from an increase while fixing the pension fund with almost no perceptible pain to the average taxpayer. They want to take one-eighth of the sales tax revenue Dallas devotes every year to the regional mass transit agency and use it instead to create a public safety trust fund. That much of a diversion, a drop in the bucket for the billion-dollar transit agency, would be enough to fully fund the city’s share in the Flynn bill while sparing the tax rate.
The old leadership, which views the regional light rail system as a suburban real estate development tool, adamantly refuses to consider the sales tax diversion, obtusely arguing that the transit agency didn’t create the pension fund problem. So what? Nobody said they did. But the sales tax money we give to the transit agency is our money, not the agency’s money.
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We need to make a down payment. We need to put some earnest money on the table to prove we intend to do everything we can to keep that damned pension fund solvent for good.
What’s troubling in the position taken by people such as the mayor and Thompson is the absence of what I just said. They don’t say and they don’t demonstrate that they mean to keep the pension fund solvent for good. No earnest money. No guarantee. Almost as bad, there have been recurring suggestions that the attrition problem will be easy to solve because lots of people need jobs.
How many ways can I find to say that that is not what we need at all. All of the agony we have gone through locally and nationally in recent years over police shootings – cops shooting people, cops getting shot by people – should have taught us that by now. Recruiting and training the right people for this kind of work is difficult, complicated and terribly important.
The pension fund problem is not only dollars and cents. The right kind of recruits, men and women who are deeply called to serve strangers at great personal risk, are volunteer soldiers. They tend to be deep believers in duty and honor. To deserve and to hold their respect, we, the city, must behave honorably. Forgive. Do better. Be honorable. That’s what this is really all about.