The file cabinets in Joe Bob Betzel's barn tell a story. It’s the two-decade story of a legal battle contending the City of Dallas underpaid its cops and firefighters.
“It’s been over 25 years for me, so that’s like a career,” said Betzel, the retired Dallas firefighter who led the fight.
On Tuesday, the Dallas City Council unanimously approved a nearly $62 million settlement. It covered 1,700 current and former police and firefighters. The city will issue bonds to pay the judgment.
“The city of Dallas did nothing wrong,” Mayor Mike Rawlings said just before voting to approve the settlement. “I've looked at this every which way and we did what that referendum said we were going to do.”
But in settling, the city avoided going to trial next month. A loss could have bankrupted the city.
“I think we had overwhelming evidence to win the trial,” Betzel said. “I wasn't worried about the trial at all.”
The lawsuits centered about the meaning of a 1979 voter referendum that gave police and firefighters a 15 percent pay raise. The voters also approved keeping the different levels of pay among the different ranks in both departments the same.
The main point of contention is this: Did voters intend to maintain that pay raise structure for one year or in perpetuity?
The city has always contended that it meant for just one year. Police and firefighters said voters meant that it was to be in perpetuity.
Betzel filed the original 1993 grievance alleging Dallas had violated the referendum. His grievance led to lawsuits a year later.
“We talked about it when we first filed it and we said maybe between five and seven years that we were looking at,” he said. “We didn’t know it was going to be this long.”
Instead, the four cases filed in Collin County became some of the longest court cases in U.S. history.
“It got large very quick,” he said. “It was like a rolling train. There was no stopping it. The faster it rolled, the more people that got on. The bigger the damages. We couldn't end it. We couldn't slow it down.”
Along the way, the lead attorney on the case died in 2009. Betzel retired in 2010 after 28 years as a Dallas firefighter. Managing the lawsuits became Betzel’s other job.
“I believe we've gone through five mayors,” he said. “A lot of our guys didn't think they would live to see the end of this case.
Betzel gives significant credit to City Attorney Larry Casto for bringing the cases to a close. “I think he made it happen,” Betzel said.
He is hopeful that with these lawsuits settled, that the city will move to do a better job of retaining police and firefighters. Public safety has been retiring or leaving in droves to work for better-paying departments.
“I hope the city will look at it from the standpoint of we saved them millions,” he said.
Two similar class action lawsuits filed in Rockwall County are ongoing. Those lawsuits cover about 8,600 public safety workers.
On Betzel’s dining table, he has stacks of documents from this year and last year. Out in the barn, Joe Bob's saved tens of thousands of pages of court documents dating back to 1993. They are organized by month and year. He plans to hold on them for a while.
“It's just something that needed to end I think for everybody,” he said.