The Dallas Police and Fire Pension board adopted a plan Thursday to try to address the concerns of worried retirees who want access to the money they have in special savings accounts.
Retirees are upset that the board has mostly halted access to the money in what's known as DROP -- Deferred Retirement Option Plan -- accounts. These are special high-interest savings accounts and a big reason the pension is going broke.
Last month, Mayor Mike Rawlings filed a lawsuit seeking to stop withdrawals from DROP accounts after worried retirees withdrew more than $500 million, pushing the fund closer to insolvency. A judge issued an order halting all withdrawals. That was modified last month to allow monthly installment payments.
What the board approved Thursday, subject to the approval of State District Judge Tonya Parker and the fund’s accountants, seeks to create an orderly withdrawal process going forward. A hearing before Parker is scheduled for Jan. 17.
They're trying to avoid a replay of a recent run on the bank.
“Nobody ever thought we would be in this situation,” said pension fund executive director Kelly Gottschalk. “It's' really hard. We're trying to be as fair as we can in a very unfair situation.”
Under the board's plan, retirees could get a monthly distribution of $3,000 from their DROP accounts starting in March.
The plan also envisions distributing an equal percentage from DROP accounts on a monthly basis, if there's money left over. They are saying that they may be able to disperse as much as 25 percent of the money from those DROP accounts in March.
“Everybody will get an equal share of the available distribution as we move forward,” Gottschalk said. “We think this is a sustainable plan.”
Worried retirees told the board that even that plan puts them in a tough financial spot.
“To say that we're going to arbitrarily set it at 3,000, that puts a lot of us in a bad crunch,” said retired Deputy Chief David Elliston. “We invested our money in this pension plan. We trusted y’all to take care of this.”
Retired police Deputy Chief Julian Bernal spoke to the frustration retirees feel toward the city and their own board, the city and Rawlings. He and others blame the mayor’s public statements for causing the run on the bank.
“Now we not only don't have confidence in the board and we certainly don't have confidence in the mayor,” he said. “So where does that leave retirees? Where does that leave the people that are trying to retire? Where does that leave the active officers?”
The run on the bank began back in August after the pension board first began publicly talking about making major changes to DROP. The mayor began publicly speaking about DROP in November when he addressed a state legislative committee, saying the situation with the pension could drive the city into bankruptcy.
After retirees objected that they would not be getting installment payments in January and February, the board agreed to pay those installments. The board also agreed to fire trustee Brian Hass’ proposal to pay out a total of $6.6 million to those who have requested lump sum withdrawals.
“We’re now going broke,” Hass said. “So let’s just start doling it out as fast as we can.”
The four city council members who sit on the board – Erik Wilson, Philip Kingston, Scott Griggs and Jennifer Gates -- opposed the plan, saying that they felt it was a violation of their fiduciary responsibilities to all pension members. One police trustee, Tho Ho, joined them.
“We're going to run out of money and we don't have a plan so until we have a plan in place we can't continue to take these actions,” Gates said.
All of this is going on as the pension and the city try to come to an agreement on a joint bill that they can take to state legislators.
Current leaders of the pension fund acknowledged recently during a meeting that they aren't in a great bargaining position after police and firefighters rejected a series of changes to try to rescue the failing fund last month. That plan would have fixed about 50 percent of the problem.
The city has agreed to put in an additional billion dollars over 30 years, but they're proposing a series of bitter pills to make up the rest of the nearly $4 billion shortfall.
The bitterest pill: A proposal to take back all of the interest police and firefighters earned on Deferred Option Retirement accounts. That would amount to an additional $1 billion saved.
“The mayor can call them equality adjustments all he wants to,” Bernal said. “He's taking money that we put into a savings accounts and it's our money.”
For those retirees who have already taken the money out of DROP accounts, they'd garnish their future pension checks to recoup excess interest.
Gottschalk said the pension wants a provision included in the legislation that would require the city’s claw back provision to be immediately reviewed by the Texas Supreme Court upon passage of the legislation.
“If we put it in, we want a decision right away so we know if we have a problem or not,” she said.
She acknowledged that it’s an anathema to her members.
“The retirees are not going to want any equity adjustment but this is something that the board as fiduciary could put in and let a judge decide if it’s legal or not,” she said.
She says negotiations have made real progress and they hope to have an agreement with the city soon on a joint bill to take to legislators.
DROP, which was created in the early 1990's, allowed police and firefighters to retire while still on the job. Their monthly pension checks then were deposited into DROP accounts, which were guaranteed an eight to 10 percent interest.
The pension continued to pay those high interest amounts in the bad years even when the fund lost hundreds of millions of dollars.
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.