Concerns linger as relief granted for some police, fire retirees

Tanya Eiserer reports.

DALLAS -- Angry retired police and firefighters packed the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund board meeting Thursday morning.

They wanted their money. It’s money socked away in special savings accounts known as the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, or DROP. It’s money that they couldn't get access to.

“I didn’t think I’d be spending my retirement time fighting my own pension board trying to get my own money,” said Joe Dunn, a retired police officer who served for 38 years. “How would you like it if one day somebody came out king's X we're cutting your income by 60 percent and they did it right before Christmas. Talk about being Scrooge.”

Earlier this month, the board halted all withdrawals to stop a run on the bank. The board acted days after Mayor Mike Rawlings filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the withdrawals. More than $500 million had been withdrawn from the cash-strapped pension fund in a matter of months. The mayor’s lawsuit triggered requests to withdraw another $150 million.

But the decision to stop the withdrawals had some unintended consequences on former public safety workers like Dunn and Joe Freeze, who had money automatically withdrawn every month to pay bills.

They were among the 938 retirees who had automatic monthly withdrawals set up.

“If we don't have that, we're going bankrupt within a few months,” said Freeze, whose wife is battling cancer for the second time.

At the meeting, one upset retiree after another addressed the board, sharing how the board's decision affected them and their families.

“We have counted on the system,” said Dale Erves, a retired police officer. "We have trusted you all. But you failed us. Do you think there's any trust now?

The board ultimately voted to let Freeze, Dunn and the others who set up automatic withdrawals resume doing so again.

That didn't help retirees like Erves at all. He had been withdrawing small amounts from his DROP account, but not on an automatic basis.

“We counted on them to protect us but now we’re out in the cold,” he says. “We don’t have any protection.”

The money in those accounts is part of a program that allowed veteran public safety workers to retire from the pension, but remain on the job while their pension checks were deposited into a special high-interest earning account.

The excessive interest paid on those DROP accounts, along with years of bad real investments made by past fund leaders, are a major reason for the fund's looming insolvency.

Police and firefighters recently voted down a litany of changes that would've fixed about half of the failing fund’s financial debacle. Now, Kelly Gottschalk, the pension fund’s administrator, says she’s working with the city to try to come up with a plan that they can take to the legislature in the upcoming session.

“We need to come up with one bill and we need to be in agreement,” she said. “We are not in agreement at this point.”

She said they were using the city’s plan as a starting point of negotiation because the board’s plan was rejected by the membership.

The city has proposed putting about a billion dollars into the fund over 30 years. The city's plan also includes treating the excess interest paid on DROP accounts as compensation in order to reduce future pension payouts to retirees. It’s a type of “claw back provision” and a non-starter with retirees.

“If we don’t support the claw back, we need to find $750 million somewhere,” she said during the meeting. “The position we’re forced to be in now is to put something before the legislature because we have to. We don’t’ have the luxury of having our members vote for it. We don’t have the luxury of waiting.”

Gilbert Travis, a retired firefighter, says he feels that the pension system misled them. He says retirees were told not to make rash decisions and encouraged not withdraw their DROP money.

“We trusted you,” Travis said. “I trusted you. I left my money in there. I wanted the fund to be stable and then you came and slapped me in the face and kicked me in the teeth.”

He says now he’s relying on his credit cards to help him get by.

“I regret my decision,” he said. “I surely do. I should have taken my money out like a lot of my friends have done.”

Retired firefighter Martin Kemp is in the same predicament as Erves and Travis. Kemp and his wife say they were planning to take an annual withdrawal in January to help them pay insurance, taxes and other bills.

“I'd never dreamed it would ever happen,” Kemp said. “This was our money. It was supposed to be available to us whenever we needed it.”

The board said they could only approve withdrawals for the those already getting automatic withdrawals because of the judge's restraining order.

“We are sorry for the pain that we have caused you guys,” said Sam Friar, the board’s chairman and active-duty firefighter. “I’m sorry.”

Over and over, retirees made it clear that they no longer trust the board. They feel that city leaders, particularly the mayor, are unfairly blaming them for the problems created by DROP.

“You folks have known for years by watching your annual report and the curve on the investment line that it was becoming a rapidly big problem,” said Pete Bailey, president of the newly created Dallas Police Retired Officer Association.

He says “crisis of confidence” was evidenced by the fact that police and firefighters voted no on the proposed changes.

As it stands, the fund will go broke in 10 years.

“This pension system, the way it’s going now will be insolvent and we don’t talking about distributing any money,” said Gottschalk, the fund’s administrator.

Copyright 2016 WFAA


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