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Dallas police officers, firefighters rail against mayor's handling of pension crisis

Mike Rawlings says he's trying to protect taxpayers as he opposes bill aimed at fixing shortfall. But first responders say he could exacerbate a shortage of police officers and firefighters.

Dallas police officers and firefighters protest their failing pension fund outside City Hall in Dallas on April 26, 2017.

DALLAS — After a gunman fatally shot five police officers amid a peaceful protest here last summer, city officials appeared at memorial services and on international television to speak about solidarity and support for first responders.

Less than nine months later, hundreds of Dallas police officers stood at City Hall on Wednesday morning and said Mayor Mike Rawlings and some of his fellow City Council members have turned their backs on the people who risk their lives to protect residents and their property.

“We want to make sure the citizens, the people in the United States, know that Dallas is not being run the way they thought it was after July 7,” said Dale Erves, a 33-year veteran of the police department who retired in 2015.

Scores of Dallas Police Association members and their supporters, clad in white “Support Dallas Police and Fire” T-shirts, marched to City Hall to protest Rawlings’ calls for residents to oppose a legislative fix to the rapidly failing first responder pension fund.

Various police association leaders warned of a looming crisis-level shortage of police officers and firefighters if the pension isn’t fixed. Dallas Police Association president Michael Mata said the city is on course to have fewer than 3,000 officers by this fall, a critical level for a city budgeted to have 3,612 officers.

He and other police leaders said the growing division between some council members and first responders — and the lack of a pension fix — could lead to slow response times and increased crimes. Speakers didn’t mince words when it came to their thoughts on the mayor.

“People are going to die and it's going to be sad, and it's going to be on Mike Rawlings’ head,” said Pete Bailey, president of the Dallas Police Retired Officers Association.

Rawlings said in an interview Wednesday that he understands the anger.

“It’s a tough situation when you deal with your livelihood, when you deal with money,” Rawlings said. “This gets very emotional and I think it’s natural that they need to take out their anger on the person who’s out front on this issue, and it happens to be me.”

"My heart breaks"

Like Houston, Dallas is facing one of the biggest pension shortfalls in the nation. The crisis was driven by a mix of questionable investments, generous benefit features and the fact that pension members withdrew more than $500 million from the system amid fears that it was about to collapse.

State Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, who chairs the Texas House pension committee, told Dallas officials and their first responders to come up with a joint plan to keep the fund from going insolvent within a decade. Working with city leaders and first responders, he authored House Bill 3158. 

It would increase contributions into the fund and take away first responders’ majority share of power on the system board. Dallas city officials say previous legislation gave police and fire representatives too much control of the system and allowed them to approve some of the benefit features and investments that have created current problems.

A bipartisan group of state representatives from across North Texas have signed on as authors and co-authors to Flynn’s bill. Police and firefighters support it.

But Rawlings and other council members oppose it. Flynn publicly railed against Rawlings last week for asking residents to also oppose the bill. Rawlings’ opposition centers on how the new board would be structured and how much money the state would force the city to contribute. 

My heart breaks for these guys and gals, OK?” Rawlings said. “It’s just so hard. I know so many of them. That’s why I want to keep this fund going and get it in the right place. But we have to do it in the right way.”

Uncertainty and a call for compromise

Police and fire employees say that they shouldn’t be blamed or penalized for the pension woes because they, too, weren’t aware that the fund was in worse shape than it actually was.

“We all thought we were 88 percent funded,” Mata said. “We're blue-collar workers. We don't look at our investment portfolio.”

First responders say Rawlings’ opposition is creating uncertainty about the fund, which could exacerbate existing staffing shortages. That, they say, will leave taxpayers in the lurch when they report crimes, need medical attention or have a house fire.

“In public service, you have to learn to compromise,” said Mata, the police association president.

When asked whether he should support the bill to prevent a potential exodus, Rawlings said he doesn’t have any other choice right now.

“My job is to do what’s right for the citizens of Dallas,” he said. “And to do that, we have to create public safety strategies that are going to work and we’ve got to take care of taxpayers.”

Erves, the 33-year police veteran, stood at Wednesday’s rally and held a sign asking Rawlings and three other council members not to attend a police officer memorial event next month. He accused some city leaders for using last year’s deadly ambush to score political points and then forgetting about first responders.

“The memorial service is a sensitive subject,” he said.

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