- About Benton Park
Competing plans emerge for St. Louis firefighter pensions
Another city leader has proposed yet another plan to curb the rising cost of city firefighter pensions.
On Friday morning, Aldermanic President Lewis Reed revealed his proposal — meant to compete with a controversial set of bills forwarded by Mayor Francis Slay two weeks ago — and, in doing so, set off a new round of political maneuvering.
Reed, surrounded by at least 50 firefighters lining the steps of City Hall's main foyer, said he worked all night Thursday with firefighter union leaders and aldermen. They estimated the new plan will save $7.6 million next year, a few million dollars less than savings estimated in the mayor's bills.
"One of the things we want to do was to build a plan that would make sure we keep our promises to the families that have worked so hard within the system," he said to the crowd. "We also wanted to make sure we built a system that was legal and sustainable. We wanted to make sure we created real cost savings for the taxpayers and stayed within the law."
Slay's staff immediately challenged Reed's assertions.
Director of Operations Sam Dotson and Chief of Staff Jeff Rainford said the president had not conducted a study to support his savings estimates and was using legal opinions provided by the firefighters.
They also accused Reed of sidestepping the city's legislative process, leaving pensions — one of the city's largest costs — in the hands of state legislators, who by law now must approve all changes to city benefits.
"Local control has to happen," Dotson said. "That is actually the fundamental problem. What they've put together is a wish list of what they'd like to happen. If it goes to Jeff City and doesn't pass, taxpayers suffer."
Reed said he would order a cost study for his proposal. And he said firefighters would sue the city if it adopts Slay's plan.
It is the third proposal for reform over the past two weeks. The first came from Slay, in the form of two board bills introduced by ally Craig Schmid, an alderman in south city's 20th Ward. The second came soon after, at a news conference called by the firefighters.
All parties agree that the system must change. They point to years of firefighter benefit increases, to a disability pension that even the system's trustees say is abused, and to the cost, which has risen from a few million dollars a year to as much as $30 million next year.
All three proposals cut deeply from the pensions of new hires and overhaul the disability benefits.
Slay's bills also cut some benefits for current employees by instituting a minimum retirement age of 55, limiting cost-of-living increases, boosting contribution requirements and ending, from this point on, the practice of returning those contributions.
Reed's plan — which has now become the firefighters' as well — leaves pensions intact for those already employed and doesn't attempt to "opt out" of the state system, as does Slay's.
Now, however, Reed threatens to outmaneuver Slay.
He has already delayed by two weeks the assignment of Slay's bills to a board committee, giving himself the time to cut a deal with the firefighters.
On top of that, on Friday he sent Slay's bills not to the board's public employees committee, where they would typically go, but to the public safety committee, chaired by one of his allies.
Board committee chairs have nearly total control of bills in their committees. They can hear them, delay them or squash them.
Alderman Greg Carter, chairman of public safety, said Friday that his agenda is packed next week. He thought it unlikely he'd get to Slay's bills so soon.
In addition, by teaming with firefighters and taking reform to Jefferson City first, Reed can essentially ignore Slay's bills and let them die in Carter's committee. It would then be Reed's plan, if approved by the state Legislature, that would be up for debate at the board of aldermen.
Aldermen, however, have varied views on the subject. Several were upset with Reed and lined up after his news conference to rail against his plan.
"The taxpayer wasn't in that room," said Steve Conway, alderman in the Shaw neighborhood, referring to Reed's discussions Thursday night. Firefighters surrounded him, yelling out questions and booing.
Later Friday, after the meetings, aldermen openly argued about the subject. Joe Vaccaro, who has worked with firefighters to introduce a disability reform bill, was upset that no one had even called him to talk about how the new proposal would affect his ideas. "I just don't want anything rammed down my throat," he said.
Ken Ortmann, alderman for Soulard and Benton Park, said he couldn't see the board passing anything that continued to require Jefferson City approval. "We have to control our finances," he said. "Any house does."
By day's end, even Rainford said this could all be good for the process, if Reed's efforts are sincere.
"As long as this is not an attempt to kill much needed reform," Rainford said. "Every other generation has kicked the can down the road. It's time to fix this thing."
firstname.lastname@example.org > 314-436-2239"> StlToday.com Posted: Saturday, February 25, 2012
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