Health law provision prompts Dallas to lay off police retirees

Retired Dallas police Sgt. Tom Wafer recently received a call from a commander that “shocked the fool” out of him: The city can’t let him or any of his fellow retirees watch police surveillance camera feeds anymore when the year is over because of an obscure provision of the Affordable Care Act.

City officials say they had to cut Wafer, 74, along with two dozen other retired officers because the health care law put them in a costly bind. The layoffs also affect a few other city agencies but hit the Dallas Police Department hardest.

The department has long leaned on retirees to monitor their crime-fighting eyes in the sky, but will have to use temporary civilian employees to watch those cameras beginning Jan. 1.

But Wafer, who has held the gig for more than five years, said it’s a mistake for the city to replace the retirees’ aging — but knowledgeable — watchmen with neophytes.

“I guess you can train a monkey to do everything if you wanted to,” Wafer said. “But if you’ve never experienced being in a squad car, riding around and being involved in all this silly crap the citizens try to throw at you all the time, it makes a difference. You get to the point where you can read people pretty well.”

The layoffs will actually affect a total of 42 temporary at-will city employees. The other city employees getting the boot are scattered throughout city agencies. Some work maybe 20 hours a year on temporary projects.

But the police retirees, along with current officers on light duty, watch the cameras from inside the Dallas City Hall basement and report back any suspicious activity or crimes caught on tape to officers in the field. Police and city officials have credited the surveillance cameras with helping make thousands of arrests since crews installed a few dozen in and around downtown Dallas in 2006.

Since then, police have added more surveillance cameras as part of technology-based initiatives to catch and deter bad guys in crime hot spots. The Police Department now tallies 250 cameras across the city.

The retired officers say they are best-suited to look for criminal activity while watching dozens of video feeds because they know what to look for and can understand criminals’ body language.

“It’s not like sitting down here and watching television,” said retired senior Cpl. Dick Hickman, 72. “You’ve got to be able to outguess them.”

Molly Carroll, the city’s human resources director, said a nuance of the Affordable Care Act ultimately forced the city’s hand.

The issue centers on retirees younger than 65 who are on the city’s retiree health care plan.

Those kinds of plans are not required to to meet the health care law’s affordability standards, Carroll said.

To keep that affordability exemption under the law, an employer can’t have two or more active employees on a retiree health plan. Violating that limit could end up costing the city upward of $10 million annually, Carroll said.

Not all of the 42 workers in question are on the retiree health plan. If city officials dropped just those employees who are to avoid conflict with the law, the city could potentially be open to discrimination lawsuits.

So they ultimately decided to disband the practice altogether, which affected all retirees, including those like Wafer who are older than 65. Police commanders declined comment, saying they did not have input in the city’s move.

There has long been tension over the city hiring retirees for temporary positions, because of concerns about people double-dipping into a pension and an active salary. Such hires in recent years have had to be personally approved by the city manager, officials said.

Wafer, who retired from the Police Department in 1990 after 27 years, said he gets about $178 a week for working Monday nights. He has held the job for five years.

“For me, it won’t hurt,” he said. “I did it because I like the police and I still like law enforcement and I like the aspect of being around old retired guys I know.”

But for other retirees, the job meant a lot more, Wafer said.

“There are some guys who need the money,” he said.;