UPDATE 2: LEGAL BATTLE
St. Louis – With the passage of Board Bill 12 last week by the Board of Aldermen to completely eliminate the current fire fighters pension plan and install a new one with far lower benefits, and in some cases dangerous and unfair conditions, a second legal front was opened with the Firemen’s Retirement System (FRS) and Fire Fighters Local 73 on one side and the City of St. Louis on the other side.
As soon as Mayor Francis Slay signs BB 12 and it becomes law, it will trigger implementation of the full lawsuit filed several weeks ago by the FRS against the City’s effort to destroy the current fire fighters pension plan.
That effort revolves around three new ordinances: BB 270 passed last session that authorized replacement of the entire pension system. However, BB270 could not go into effect until BB12 (implementing a new pension system) was passed. Then the Board of Aldermen passed BB 11 to try and prevent the pension fund trustees from defending the fund against what they call an “illegal” effort to take over the fund.
BB 11 was passed two weeks ago and last week BB12 was passed by the Board of Aldermen.
Now that all three implementation bills have been passed, the FRS is in position to press its full lawsuit on all counts. “We believe the entire process is unconstitutional and flies in the face of state law,” said FRS attorney Dan Tobben.
Once the mayor signs BB 12 (BBs 270 and 11 have already been signed), it won’t go into effect for 30 days. Before that happens, the FRS will seek a temporary restraining order and/or a preliminary injunction on BB12 from a judge to stop its implementation while the full lawsuit moves through the courts.
Meanwhile, July 16 was the deadline for both sides to file final briefs on the FRS efforts to stop BB 11’s implementation against the trustees, which is part of the total lawsuit. A final resolution is expected in late July.
The pension trustees argue that no changes can be made until the Missouri Legislature first passes enabling legislation as required by state law, which then allows the Board of Aldermen to approve or reject proposed changes.
“The shame of it all is that the resident and taxpayers of St. Louis stand to be the real losers,” said Mark Woolbright, International Association of Fire Fighters District 2 vice president.
“Not only will there be massive legal costs for the City, and they’ve probably already spent close to a million dollars needlessly now as they’ve lost all three previous lawsuits, there will be the issue as to whether or not the City puts potential pension cost payments due the retirement fund in escrow while the lawsuits are pending. If they don’t, and they didn’t in past lawsuits, there will be yet another major funding crisis artificially caused by the City’s inaction.”
The new Board Bill 12 makes major changes to the fire fighters pension plan, changes which could be detrimental to residents needing fire services and to fire fighters themselves, both in terms of physical danger and economic hardships.
• For residents – potential danger: Fire fighting is a younger man’s game. Today anyone up to 33 years of age (up to 39 if you have six years of active military service) is eligible for the job. If they have to wait 35 years to earn a full pension as now proposed under BB 12, do you really want a 68-year old fire fighter (potentially 74 if they were in the military) trying to make a rescue on the second or third floor of a home, carrying unconscious adults or children out of harms way?
Additionally, the new ordinance says a fire fighter can’t begin to draw a pension until the age of 55. If they have less than 35 years but a minimum of 20 years, they are eligible for a reduced pension (e.g. 20 years service receives a 40 percent of salary pension). Let’s say a fire fighter comes on at 22 years old, works 20 years and says “enough.” At 42 years old, that fire fighter will be forced to wait another 13 years before being able to draw the pension earned. Previously, the amount of the pension was based on the number of years worked with no mandatory minimum retirement age.
• For fire fighters- physical danger: For fire fighters, and for police officers as well, the job is strenuous, dangerous and requires substantial physical skill. For a younger fire fighter, extreme physical duress is not an issue; for an older one, it becomes problematic. Under the new ordinance, a fire fighter must work 35 years to earn a full pension.
Given that the average age of the last three new fire fighters classes was 00 years, a fire fighter would have to be 00 before reaching 35 years of service. That means as they get older, they put themselves, and the public, in real danger as they try to do what they are always willing to do, run into burning buildings to effect rescues when needed.
• For fire fighters- economic hardship as they are about to take a nine percent pay cut. Under the new ordinance, nine percent of wages will be withheld for the pension (currently it’s eight percent).
Until now, a retiring fire fighter received a lump sum payment of all pension wages withheld (although the interest on that money stayed in the pension plan). This money was considered an offset to the fact that they are not eligible for Social Security.
Since they will not be getting that money back, in effect the fire fighters are seeing a nine percent wage cut! That in spite of the fact they are one of the lowest paid departments in the metro area and among the lowest paid major metropolitan department in the nation.
“With the latest attack on fire fighters passing by only two votes (17-10 with 15 required for passage) it’s clear that a lot of aldermen understand just how unfair this bill is to fire fighters,” said Chris Molitor, Fire Fighters Local 73 president.
“We are still open to negotiating legal changes in the pension system, but doing it the right way,” Molitor stressed.
“What the fire fighters originally proposed and what the City is trying to cram down our throats is not too far apart in terms of dollar savings. If we could get back to the table and negotiate a fair and reasonable agreement, we could together go to Jefferson City, pass the appropriate enabling legislation, and then bring it back to the Board of Alderman for approval; it would then be legal and binding. But it’s clear that the City doesn’t want to go the legal route, so we’ll undoubtedly be in court for a few years.”