Change means Cowtown is once again ahead of Dallas in terms of LGBT-inclusive policies
Fort Worth city officials announced Wednesday, Jan. 28, that beginning Feb. 1, the city will extend spousal benefits to the legal same-sex spouses of city employees. They made the announcements through The Roundup, the city employee newsletter.
The policy change was made to keep the city in compliance with IRS rulings handed down in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2013 ruling in United States v Windsor that overturned the section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act prohibiting federal government from recognizing legal same-sex marriages.
The Windsor decision requires that, regarding benefits governed under federal tax law, legal recognition of same-sex marriages be based on where the ceremony was held, not where the couple lives, noted David Mack Henderson, president of Fairness Fort Worth.
“In recent months, Fairness Fort Worth has held discussions with Fort Worth city manager representatives, especially in light of changes that have come from the IRS after the Windsor decision,” Henderson said after the announcement on Wedneday. “They took these matters seriously, welcomed our insights and conducted their own research to come to an informed decision regarding pension benefit parity.”
Assistant City Manager Susan Alanis said changing the policy was the logical decision to make.
“The city of Fort Worth has been working hard to be an inclusive environment for our employees and our citizens,” Alanis said. “Many other states have legalized same-sex marriage [and] that is recognized by the federal government for tax purposes. The city of Fort Worth has an IRS-qualified pension plan; therefore, it makes sense for us to allow all legally married employees to be treated the same under that federally-qualified plan.”
Henderson said that several city employees participated in discussions with the city manager’s office regarding the need to change the benefits policy, including Fort Worth police Cpl. Tracey Knight. Knight and her wife have a daughter, and they have been visible and vocal proponents of the marriage equality movement in Texas.
“This is a great day for LGBT officers in the city of Fort Worth,” Knight said after the policy change was announced. “This decision means that — God forbid — if I get killed in the line of duty, my partner of 12 years — my wife since we got married in June 2014 — will be taken care of and treated like any other spouse of a fallen police officer.
“Fort Worth has continuously made progressive and inclusive decisions because it is the right thing to do not because they were forced to,” Knight added. “I am proud to be a Fort Worth police officer and I am proud to live in the great city of Fort Worth.”
Henderson also applauded Rafael McDonnelI, the communications and advocacy manager of Dallas’ Resource Center who is a Fort Worth resident. Henderson expressed his “gratitude [to McDonnell] for our partnership [in] researching the nitty-gritty of dizzying regulations. It’s interesting to work for a common goal, even while he and I compete to see which city demonstrates it is more progressively competitive.”
McDonnell noted that as soon as Fort Worth officials announced the policy change, he notified Dallas city officials that they were “behind the city of Fort Worth when it comes to this issue.”
Dallas City Councilman Phillip Kingston agreed.
“I’m deeply embarrassed to have lost out on this important equality benefit to Fort Worth,” Kingston told Dallas Voice. But he added, “Both [Dallas] pensions are working toward implementing equality.”
Kingston said the city employee pension fund board may need some additional encouragement from the city council to change its policy, but could go for a vote in the November election. The police and fire pension may take a vote of its beneficiaries to change some wording before it equalizes benefits.
Pointing to the successful charter change last November that added sexual orientation and gender identity to the nondiscrimination policy, Kingston said he was confident that voters would approve this change as well.
The notice in the Fort Worth city employee newsletter explained that as of Feb. 1, a 75 percent survivor benefit becomes available to the eligible same-sex spouses of general employees hired prior to July 1, 2011, to police officers hired prior to Jan. 1, 2013 and to firefighters hired prior to
Jan. 10, 2015, as long as the couple were legally married at least one year prior to the employee’s retirement.
Eligible members who retire on or after Feb. 1 will be eligible for the survivor benefit without a reduction in their pension benefits. Eligible members currently receiving a reduced benefit to provide for a legal same-sex spouse will have their benefit restored, without back pay, beginning Feb. 1.
Employees and their spouses must provide necessary documentation of their legal marriage before they are eligible for the benefits.
Any retiree who did not take a benefit reduction when they retired to fund a survivor benefit, but who was legally married to their spouse for at least one year prior to their retirement from the city, can notify the fund of their designation of a spouse as their survivor and submit the required documentation.
Those hired after the specified dates have to take a reduction in pension benefits when they retire to be able to provide a survivor benefit to the person they designate.
All employees, no matter when they were hired, are eligible for a 75 percent spousal survivor benefit if they are vested and die while actively employed. The policy change means that as of Feb. 1, that also applies to same-sex spouses.
All these polices are now the same for all employees and their spouses, regardless of whether they are same-sex couples or opposite-sex couples.
Given the current backlash from conservative forces angry over LGBT advances in marriage equality and other areas, Henderson acknowledged right-wing elements may come forward to challenge the city’s policy changes.
“Will the usual loudmouths cry foul?” Henderson said. “Look, I can’t do much about folks waving pitchforks and playing chicken on live mics.
But here’s what I do know: Fort Worth values all of our employees and their families equally.
“That’s how we draw the most talented workforce and also how we compete for jobs from firms who do the same. Many companies and cities tout high standards, but in Fort Worth we live by ours,” Henderson said.
Dallas Voice Senior Staff Writer David Taffet contributed to this report.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 30, 2015.