Testimony heard at state capitol on Dallas pension fund changes

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Dallas city leaders and union reps for first responders had very different opinions on the state lawmakers' bill aimed to rescue the doomed Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund.

Many supporters of first responders attended the hearing in Austin on the bill. The mayor testified against it while the pension system director says she's in favor.

The hearing could go on long into Monday night. Dozens of people signed up to speak. Members of the house committee were clearly not happy with Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and others at city hall who opposed the bill they've been working on so long.

Rawlings called the current bill a taxpayer bailout and one that doesn't allow the city enough control over the pension board, which through previous fraud and mismanagement dug the hole Dallas is currently in.

The fund is headed for bankruptcy unless changes are made. The changes would raise the retirement age from 55 to 58, end lump sum payouts and freeze the cost of living increases at least until the fund is stable again.

Chairman Dan Flynn questioned the mayor about why Dallas did not catch the problems sooner. Another lawmaker criticized the mayor for his last-minute opposition.

“Based on in part of this fraud, the beneficiaries voted themselves unsustainable benefits-” Rawlings said.

“Can I interrupt you,” Flynn told the mayor. “Does the city have an auditor that would have gone and audited those?”

“I asked for that and the board told me that I did not have the right,” Rawlings said.

Former Dallas mayor Tom Leppert also testified against the bill. He came under fire from Kelly Gottschalk, the current pension director who claimed Leppert's appointees were there when some of the worst decisions were made.

"If you look back at that time, his appointees were widely reported taking lavish trips with the rest of the board,” she said.

House member Jason Villalba, a Dallas Republican, also directed fire at the mayor and former mayor.

"Our folks on the other side told us that we were close, that there might be some things that we tweak, he said. “But we're close and willing to come up on this and say that they are for this plan which has been so excruciatingly drafted in the last six months. And yet, we don't understand until last night that the city would be against it."

Opposition to the bill as currently drawn also now includes Councilman Scott Griggs. He says a so-called "escalator clause” would have Austin dictating yearly staffing increases and increased pension payments whether or not hires are actually made.

"Even though we haven't hired them, we will be paying on phantom officers and phantom firefighters,” he said. “And to me, that solution is essentially a Ponzi hiring scheme."

Dozens of police officers and firefighters also made the trip to weigh in on the bill that impacts their livelihoods. Among them was 88-year-old Marie Tippit, the widow of the Dallas police officer gunned down by Lee Harvey Oswald.

"I just had to come and tell everybody that they need to consider what they are doing with this, that it be done right and the benefit of all the widows who are living with this pension,” she said. “And without it, they have nothing left."

City leaders are also taking heat over their opposition to the bill from first responders.

Frederick Frazier with the Dallas Police Association said he is disappointed.

“We need the city to step up like our officers do every day,” he said.

With no fix, the pension is set to be insolvent in 10 years.

One lawmaker said that the situation is a ticking time bomb because May 11 is the deadline to get a bill passed.

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