Pension turmoil spurs fear among first responders

Mayor files lawsuit to stop withdrawals

DALLAS, Texas -- It's not your typical love story.

Ernest Sherman and his wife, Renee, met on a call.

Sherman is a Dallas police lieutenant. His wife is a Dallas firefighter.

Right now, Sherman's at home taking care of Renee. Doctors removed a brain tumor last month after she had a seizure at work.

“Right now, we can pay the doctor bills and do what we need to do,” he told News 8.

Sherman's worried, not just about his wife’s health but about the failing Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund they invested their futures in.

RELATED: Dallas mayor files lawsuit against Dallas Police and Fire Pension System

“Thank goodness it was diagnosed now instead of let's say 10 years down the road when we're both retired,” Sherman said. “If we were on a fixed income with no social security check and just that pension check and this whole thing fixing to go belly up, that would be real scary.”

On Monday, Mayor Mike Rawlings filed a lawsuit against the pension seeking to stop the lump sum withdrawals from special high-interest high accounts. The deferred option retirement plan, known as DROP, is one of the main reasons that the pension is set to go bankrupt in the in next decade.

The mayor’s latest move came after he sent a letter to the board last week demanding that it stop retired police and firefighters from making the withdrawals. So far, more than $500 million has been taken out of accounts by worried retirees in recent months.

“The problem with it is that every time something is said about it it does cause more fear and more people run down and get their money out,” said Officer Herb Ebsen, a 32-year veteran of the police force. “I think all the older officers and firefighters are feeling like their careers and sacrifices aren't very much appreciated and almost look like peons who don't deserve the retirement benefits that we've worked all our lives for.”

The mayor's lawsuit says that by allowing the withdrawals to continue, the pension board has failed in its responsibility to the fund. The solvency of the fund has been reduced by five years and if DROP withdrawals continue unabated, it will lead to a liquidity crisis within the next 90 days and force the sale of assets.
The board's position is that they legally can't stop the withdrawals, but the mayor disagrees.

“This is going to cause panic,” Sherman said. “Is the mayor going to take responsibility for that?”

According to city briefing documents, there are currently 517 DROP accounts with more than $1 million in them. The account with the highest balance has more than $4 million in it. The average account has about $600,000.

“There’s a total lack of trust,” Sherman said. “There’s no trust in the system or the city.”

On Friday, city officials posted an 84-page briefing outlining all of the problems connected to the pension fund and its proposals to try to keep the fund from going bankrupt. The pension fund has asked the fund for more than $1 billion to stave off insolvency, which the mayor has called a “nonstarter.”

The Dallas City Council  is scheduled to be briefed Wednesday. The city wants more control over the fund that it deposits more than $110 million in to each year. That would take a change in state law.

The city’s contention is that the state set up a flawed system that gave control to its beneficiaries, who in turn, voted themselves overly generous benefits. One of the biggest was DROP, which for many years paid a guaranteed return of eight to 10 percent, even in years when the fund made nowhere near that amount or lost money.

The city is proposing to strip retirement benefits from retirees who benefited handsomely from DROP. The city’s position, in effect, is that they already received the benefits that they were entitled to receive.

“Some did very well," Ebsen said. "I don’t have a problem saying that but the vast majority didn’t. They’ve got enough to retire comfortably and I think rightfully so.”

He also says he knows of people who've depleted the money that was in their DROP account and would be left destitute if their pension checks were cut.

“It’s pretty scary to all of us because we're at the end of our careers and it's time to move on and now they're talking about taking benefits away,” said Ebsen, who has been in DROP for 10 years. “We did the best we could all these years and worked hard and risked our lives … and now for them to threaten us is really causing a lot of fear for officers and firefighters. It’s causing a morale problem.

Sherman and his wife are not in DROP, but he too sees a problem with penalizing those who are.

“If you start drawing a line in the sand and saying, 'We’re going to cut your benefits because you obeyed the rules and you went by the system,'” he said. “It was offered. You took advantage. It sounds like retaliation and I don’t think a city government should be in the business of retaliating.”

Right now, voting is underway among police officers and firefighters to make changes that would strip limit drop account, raise contributions and decrease benefits. Ebsen and Sherman support the changes because they want to do their part to protect the pension.

But they have many questions about how the pension that they thought was so healthy for so many years could have been in such dire straits.

“How did this happen?” Ebsen said. “How was it covered up to where the rank and file didn’t have any information about why it was so far underfunded when all of this time they were telling us that everything was fine?

Sherman's not sure what the future holds for his family or for their pension.

“Our future is up in the air now,” he said. “It’s somewhat bleak. All you have is people pointing fingers at each other. Everybody’s to blame but nobody's accepting responsibility, and the people that are truly to blame are being let off the hook.”

Copyright 2016 WFAA


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