Part 4: City ‘scapegoating’ fire fighters
By ED FINKELSTEIN
St. Louis – Throughout the public discussions about the fire fighters’ pension issue, there has been an undercurrent, not stated but “implied,” that somehow the fire fighters have been taking advantage of the taxpayers and need to be reigned in.
As the City’s rhetoric heats up, there have been outright threats to imprint that negative impression with the public when the Slay Administration talks about having to possibly close firehouses and layoff police and firefighters in order to absorb the rising cost of pensions for both firefighters and police.
Unfortunately this image has been bolstered by the disclosures that a few fire fighters have abused the disability pension system, an act Fire Fighters Local 73 has condemned.
“There is no place in our system for the kind of abuse that’s been exposed,” Local 73 President Chris Molitor said. “But you can’t tar everyone with that brush, it’s not right, it’s not fair. We made attempts to solve that problem but the City has ignored our proposals.”
FACTS SUPPORT FIRE FIGHTERS
The utter nonsense of the City’s implications that fire fighters are somehow “taking advantage” was revealed when the Labor Tribune looked at 30 urban fire departments across America (including Kansas City) to determine just how St. Louis’ nationally recognized fire department compares with their counterparts.
The research bolsters Local 73’s position: for decades, St. Louis firefighters have given up wages and benefits in order to ensure their pension is adequate to support themselves and their families since they don’t receive Social Security. This fact is conveniently “overlooked” by the City when it cries rivers of tears over its fiscal situation whose causes are far deeper than just the pensions of public employees.
“We understand the City has financial issues, but the fire fighters are not the cause of those problems,” Molitor stressed. “Every benefit we’ve earned by deferring wage increases to support a stronger pension has had the City’s approval.”
“It’s really unfair for the mayor’s office to try and make the fire fighters look bad. There’s no question that they have distorted their ‘facts’ to that purpose. We’re one of the busiest departments in the country. To tell residents that it’s our fault that the City is going to have to close fire stations is outrageous.”
As reported last week, Fire House Magazine ranks the St. Louis department as the 19th busiest in the nation.
The status of St. Louis fire fighters as compared to the top 30 cities in America is shocking. The public needs to understand this to help put the entire pension issue into clearer perspective and understand why Fire Fighters Local 73 is fighting so hard to protect its members’ hard-earned, delayed, pension benefits.
Data has been provided through the Research Department of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) that monitors cities across America.
• Pay – The base pay of a St. Louis firefighter after one year of service is $37,514. However, that same pay average for 29 other cities is $45,516. St. Louis’ pay lags behind 21 percent.
Only seven of the 30 cities have lower wages: New Orleans, Jacksonville FL, Detroit, Baltimore, Atlanta, El Paso, and Pittsburg. Twenty-three are much higher. A few examples: Kansas City ($39,072), Milwaukee ($39, 685), Chicago ($50,490), Columbus ($42,349), Denver ($46,710) and Phoenix ($47,304).
The fire fighters have not had a pay raise since 2008.
• Top pay – Assuming no wages increases, but only the published salary steps, a St. Louis fire fighter’s base pay can climb to $57,387. The average of the 30 tested cities is $65,189 a lag of 14 percent for St. Louis.
Given that other cities offer other forms of compensation, the average top base for the 30 cities grows slightly to $69,894 while St. Louis is static at $57,387.
• Time to top pay scale – Shockingly, the average time it takes to reach top pay scale in St. Louis is 31 years! The average of the 30 cities to reach top pay scale is 8.5 years. Not a single city requires as much time as St. Louis to attain max base pay. The closest is New Orleans, 23 years. The shortest are Boston, Indianapolis and Memphis where it takes only three years.
The conclusion: St. Louis fire fighters start at a lower pay and it takes the almost four times longer to get to the maximum on the pay scale.
• Longevity – Normally, as a worker’s time on the job, experience and street smarts improves, one expects to improve their financial position. Not so in St. Louis. Shockingly, as the time on the job increases, St. Louis fire fighters are still behind the pay scales of their contemporaries in the 30 tested cities.
Year % behind Avg. Pay STL Avg. Pay 29 cities
1 21.3 $37,514 $45,516
6 36.8 $44,859 $61,352
11 19.6 $53,333 $63,774
16 18.4 $54,649 $64,684
20 17.3 $55,378 $64,943
• Working 20 years – Another way to view the pay issue, is the average annual pay a fire fighter actually earned over a 20-year span. That is, totaling the actual pay earned each year then dividing by 20 years. St. Louis comes out on the short end of the stick, again.
Over a 20-year period, the average annual pay of fire fighters in the 29 tested cities was $61,221. St. Louis’ average was $49,587, putting St. Louis fire fighters behind by 23.5 percent.
• Other benefits – Looking across the spectrum of the 29 tested cities, there are other benefits provided to fire fighters: shift differentials, uniform and uniform maintenance allowances, holiday pay, and personal hours. While not all of the 29 cities provide all of these benefits, only three cities provide NONE of them: St. Louis, Baltimore and Milwaukee.
Local 73 contends that the real issue here is the fact that the City wants total control over the pension program’s huge pot of cash. “That all this about the pensions is part of a smokescreen to obscure that single-minded goal,” Molitor said.
The comparison cities in this study were New Orleans, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Memphis, Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Antonio, El Paso, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Houston, Cincinnati, Columbus, Phoenix, Washington, Milwaukee, Dallas, San Diego, Boston, Kansas City, Mo, Denver, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco.