Pension Crisis

Dallas Cops Get Wise to Impending Public Pension Catastrophe, Start Yanking Their Money Out of the System

Dallas' police and fire pension fund is $5 billion in debt, so officers are making the smart decision to invest privately.



With their pension fund teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, Dallas police officers are grabbing what they can before the whole thing crashes down.

Panic has set in and dozens of officers are pulling their retirement money out of the system as quickly as possible, WFAA reported over the weekend. One assistant police chief recently pulled $1 million out of the retirement fund and more than $300 million has been withdrawn in recent years, the Dallas ABC affiliate reported, citing unnamed sources.

Like most public pensions systems, the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System gives members the option to withdraw a lump sum when they retire or to collect an annual payment for the rest of their lives. Think of it as the difference between taking the payout or the annuity in a lottery—the lump sum is probably less than what you'd get with the installment plan (depending on how long you live, of course) but at least you know how much money you're getting.

It seems that many newly retired officers believe that its better to get some money today instead of being promised more money tomorrow. That's because tomorrow might not come for a pension system that has been badly managed for decades and is now $5 billion in the red. According to Moody's, the system will be completely broke in about 20 years.

Things look even worse now, after the horrific sniper attack that left five Dallas police officers dead spurred a wave of retirements, placing additional stress on the already nearly bankrupt system.

Through the first two weeks of September, 21 police officers have filed for retirement, NBC's Dallas affiliate reported this weekend. Retirees will be eligible to start drawing a pension on October 1, but it looks like many new retirees are planning to pull all their cash out of the city's pension fund as quickly as possible, leaving officials scrambling to figure out how to deal with the loss of assets.

The city poured $29.3 million into the fund this year, but members of the pension board told the city council in May that an immediate infusion of $600 million—equal to 20 cents of every dollar the city spends this year—would be required to keep the fund solvent.

The pension fund expects to earn 7.5 percent annually—a figure that many experts say is too high a target in the current investment environment—but the bigger problem for Dallas is it's Deferred Retirement Option Plan. The DROP system allows retired officers to reinvest their pension checks in the system and comes with a guaranteed return of 8 percent to 10 percent. Though the city has now closed the DROP program to new members, it continues to accumulate more than $300 million in annual losses, the Dallas Observer reported earlier this year.

More than 200 retired Dallas police officers have collected more than $1 million from the DROP program, the Observer found.

After making millionaires out of former cops, it looks like the pension fund is about to run out of other peoples' money. Things are getting so desperate that the pension board is considering whether it should block retirees from withdrawing their own money out of the system, forcing them to take the long-term payout instead.

"This may be the only way the pension can limit the cash outflow because we are in a bad situation that right now the existence of the system is at stake," the board said in a letter to members informing them of the potential change, WFAA reported.

That leaves the pension board with a philosophical dilemmna: do they act in the best interest of the pension system, or the best interest of the people who have invested their retirements in it?

Clearly, it would be in the best interest of the members—not just the new retirees, but all the people invested in the collapsing system—to let them have their money back (or as much of it as possible) so they can invest it on their own.

If the board decides to stop retirees from getting their money out of the system, it means they are prioritizing the continued existence of the system (something that's very much in doubt no matter what the board does) above the welfare of their members.

That's hardly surprising. Government agencies do this all the time, as whatever reason once existed for their creation gives way to bureaucratic inertia. It does, however, expose the lie that police officers in Dallas and public employees around the rest of the country have been told for a long time about the sanctity of their retirement plans. The money is running out.

Meanwhile, Dallas is planning to hand out 10 percent pay raises to cops and firefighters.