By Ron Saathoff, Director of IAFF’s Pension Resource Department
The pension attacks keep coming and St. Louis fire fighters are in the eye of the storm.
Democratic Mayor Francis Slay is proposing to reform the pensions of fire fighters, including those who are vested in the pension system.
A fire fighter becomes vested within the pension system with 20 years on the job. The Mayor is calling for deep reductions for active fire fighters, including those who are vested.
New fire fighters would see big cuts including: reduced disability pensions to 25 percent of salary for those unable to be fire fighters but still able to work; raise fire fighters’ yearly contributions from 8 percent to 9 percent and end the practice of returning contributions; recalculate annual pensions for new fire fighters on the last three years of pay instead of the last two; increase years of service needed to max out at 75 percent of pay; eliminate for new fire fighters the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP); and raise the minimum full retirement age to 55.
Fire fighters argue that the mayor is not following protocol and is spreading misinformation about who controls the fire fighters’ pension.
Under the current system, any pension benefit change must begin with enabling legislation from the state general assembly. It then goes to the Board of Alderman for permissive legislation and has to be signed by the mayor before it would be enacted.
Fire fighters say Mayor Slay is making up his own rules. IAFF Local 73 requested that the “checks and balances” that involve the state be recognized. Fire fighters asked the city for an impasse resolution, up to and including binding arbitration. The city refused. The mayor declared during the first meeting of the year that the city needed to save $7 million.
Fire fighters say the mayor never tried to meet them in the middle during the negotiating process and communication.
IAFF Local 73 president Chris Molitor says the union has a plan to save $6.6 million.
The fire fighters’ plan would change for new hires the accounting method used to fund the pensions, reduce disability benefits as already proposed, return 75 percent instead of all of each fire fighters pension contributions, decrease final salary calculations and add a minimum retirement age of 55 or 30 years of service.
A bill to eliminate the retirement system and start a new system was filed February 14, but the union did not receive notice that the city declared an impasse until later that night. The notice was sent via email, with a mailed letter arriving at the union hall.
Last year, IAFF Local 73 was successful in getting enabling legislation through the State Assembly, changing the disability benefit. It was overwhelmingly supported by the union membership. Fire fighters said the change would have immediately saved the city between $1.1 and $1.3 million with greater savings in the future. When Alderman Joe Voccarro introduced the bill to the Board of Aldermen on behalf of IAFF Local 73, the chair of the Public Employee Committee refused to allow the bill to be introduced.
“The mayor’s negotiator refused the suggestion of a contractual agreement, securing benefits for active fire fighters,” says Molitor. “He refused to suggest any impasse resolution and he refused binding arbitration. We believe that the city of St Louis is in violation of state law and are hopeful that the Aldermen will see this bill for what it really is, a money grab at our retirement fund.”
Fire fighters say what’s more disheartening is that Mayor Slay, a Democrat, says he is on the side of labor. The union has learned that the mayor has spent over $250,000 of city money on a private law firm, hired to provide legal advice and counseling to strip fire fighters of their current pensions. (Last year, the firm also contributed $40,000 to the mayor’s re-election campaign). Fire fighters say the mayor has refused to give copies of the legal opinion from the firm to other elected officials.
“The treatment of the fire fighters and his unwillingness to give contractual guarantees would suggest that he is not pro-labor, and is quite the opposite,” Molitor says.
What do you think of Mayor Slay’s effort to reform the pension of fire fighters?