By ED FINKELSTEIN
St. Louis- With the current struggle between St. Louis firefighters and City of St. Louis in high gear, the handwriting is on the wall – the city wants to control and/or reduce the pensions for ALL city employees including police and other city employees.
“The mayor has opted to take on the fire fighters first because he knows we will be the most difficult; if he can win against us, he can win against all the other union groups that are involved with the city,” said Fire Fighters Local 73 President Chris Molitor. “If the mayor is successful here, all city employees are at risk.”
ATTACK ON PENSIONS
The facts seem to back that up:
• There is the current fight with Fire Fighters Local 73 to eliminate the checks and balances that now exist in the fire fighter’s pension system. Before any major changes can be made in the pension, enabling legislation is required from the State Legislature. “This provide a positive balance to keep politics out of the pension system,” Molitor said, noting that the real control still lies with the City since the Board of Aldermen and the mayor have the final say on any changes that may have been authorized by the legislature.
• On Feb. 15, it was reported that the City is already considering changes in the police department’s retirement program. On Jan. 31, the St. Louis Police Retirement System Board of Trustees voted 5 to 2 to propose a bill to the Missouri Legislature making changes in the police department pension similar to those being proposed for the fire department.
• Regarding the other city employees, on Feb. 9, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted Slay’s Chief of Staff Jeff Rainford as saying the city is focusing on firefighters’ pensions first. “All three of the city’s retirement systems – for firefighters, police officers and civil service employees – are under scrutiny now,” said the article.
To date there have been no discussions with other city employee unions about pension issues, AFSCME Local 410 President Ted Williams said. “Down the road, who knows, but right now things are stable with us.” Those unions are AFSCME Local 410, Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 562, Electrical Workers 1, Operating Engineers Local 2 and the Carpenters’ District Council.
Police Officers Association Business Manager Jeff Roorda called the pension issue in the police department a “manufactured crisis” pointing to the additional $4.5 million the pension trustees required the City to contribute to the police system this year as a result of changes to the plan assumptions, like drastically inflating the life expectancy of retirees.
Several meetings have been held between the mayor’s office, the pension trustees and the police officers association about structural changes to the police pension. Roorda described the talks as “productive.”
Police Chief Dan Isom, in a Post-Dispatch article, gave the reporter the same argument the fire fighters have been making about retention of good staff because of low pay: “"People stay here long-term because of pension benefits," he continued. "It's not because of the pay, because our pay is lower than most police agencies in St. Louis and in the region."
The fire fighters throughout the current dispute have made that same argument:
“The Firemen's Pension Fund is deferred income from firefighter paychecks matched with employer contributions. St. Louis fire fighters do not collect Social Security, so our pensions represent all of what we will have at retirement, Molitor has stressed over and over.
LOW PAY BUT BETTER PENSION
“Fire fighting is a tough, dirty, dangerous job. While our pay is lower than almost every department in the county, our pension is better, and that helps us keep well-qualified people in our department,” Molitor stressed. The St. Louis Fire Department is known throughout the nation as one of, if not the best-trained, most capable department.
Research provided by the International Association of Fire Fighters shows that the pay of St. Louis fire fighters is not only the lowest in this region, it does not even fall within the pay of the top 30 cities in America!
The starting pay for a St. Louis fire fighter is $37,514 while the average of the top 30 paying cities is $45,516. St. Louis lags behind by 21.3 percent.
In the top 10 cities in the Midwest with populations comparable to St. Louis, the IAFF shows that St. Louis ranks second to last in terms of starting pay. The average starting salary in these 10 cities is $41,632.
Another interesting issue: even as the mayor’s current budget calls for eliminating two fire houses and reducing manpower allegedly because of the pension issue, Fire House Magazine rated the St. Louis Fire Department the 19th busiest in the nation.