FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – Fort Worth is facing some tough choices as it tries to keep its promises to city workers while fixing a pension fund that could go bankrupt. Raising taxes is an option.
An army of firefighters dressed in red and police officers dressed in black packed into Fort Worth City Hall. Even though the city council did not take action Tuesday night, first responders were at the council chambers, lobbying to protect their retirement benefits.
“I would say anything that touches retiree benefits or anything that somebody’s worked hard and been promised throughout their entire career… I mean, you’re talking 20-35 years,” said police association president Manny Ramirez.
The Fort Worth Police Officers Association said that its members are willing to pay more into the fund, but cutting cost of living adjustments for Fort Worth city employees who are already retired is a deal breaker. “We just think that it’s immoral to try to take that away,” said Ramirez.
The City of Fort Worth needs to come up with $48 million to $50 million dollars a year (in addition to the $90 million that the city already pays) to keep the Fort Worth city employee pension fund from going bankrupt. The city has estimated that bankruptcy would not happen for about 25 more years.
A more immediate fear is that the state could step in, like it has to keep pension funds in Dallas or Houston afloat, if a solution is not reached in the next few months.
“The red line for me is that we have to settle this,” said Mayor Betsy Price. “We have to come up with a solution here in Fort Worth that’s compassionate and equitable.”
More than 10,000 current and retired city employees depend on the pension. All city employees qualify for it, including librarians, police officers, firefighters and maintenance staff.
“The retirees that we’re talking about are not out here getting rich,” said Marsha Anderson of the Fort Worth Retirement Fund. “We earned those benefits. We believed the city. At this point, we are not going to join the workforce again. Our bodies are broken, our health is failing and we served the public faithfully.”
City council heard several plans Tuesday to save the retirement fund. They all included asking taxpayers to pay more, asking city employees to pay more, raising the retirement age and reducing other benefits, like the cost of living increases that city workers said are a red line.
“Either everybody likes it or we p*** everybody off equally, but we are going to get an acceptable solution,” said city councilman Dennis Shingleton.
Price said that she hopes any changes made in the next few months are finally a solution that takes the fund from costing the city money to paying for itself. “This isn’t a problem we created, it’s a problem we inherited, and so did many mayors and councils before us,” said the Mayor. “It’s been tackled in little snippets. I think that this is the solution.”
The city has been struggling to pay for the pension for years, after decades of mismanagement. City manager David Cooke said that there were bad investments, overpaying of benefits and no planning for economic downturns in the past.
On August 16, the city council will meet again to narrow down the options to one proposal. The city council will then vote in September and in November, city employees will get a yes-or-no vote. If they vote yes, the changes will go into effect in January. If they vote no, the city will go back to the drawing board — or the state could step in.