City budget
4:35 pm
Wed May 11, 2011

Pensions, jail escapes at issue during St. Louis city budget debate

When the Ways and Means committee of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen meets, anything goes as far as topics.

Today, it was the Department of Public Safety's turn on the hot seat, and pensions, recruiting and jail escapes were on the minds of the committee members. Here's a sampling of their concerns:

  • The budget for the Corrections division, which operates the city's two jails, includes 23 vacancies for corrections officers. But the division has had trouble recruiting enough guards because of the strict requirements (must be a city resident, no felony convictions) and the demands of the position. Aldermen expressed concern about the amount of overtime that's required to fully staff the jails, and also the way the department is recruiting individuals.
  • Aldermen also took issue with the fact that no senior corrections officials have been disciplined for the two jail escapes in the past year - two juvenile inmates from the Medium Security Institution in north St. Louis last June and two men charged with violent crimes from the maximum security facility downtown last month.  In both cases, said corrections commissioner Gene Stubblefield, the guards did not follow procedure. But, alderman Jeffrey Boyd countered, policies aren't everything:

"If you don't have a culture in which people respect each other, and people appreciate what they're doing, things like this happen. I know we have no control over other people's behavior. However, leadership starts at the top.

  • As it has for several years, the topic of firefighter pensions sparked discussion. The city expects to contribute about $30 million toward those costs this year, and required contributions have pushed the fire department over its budget for the last few years. Chief Dennis Jenkerson told the committee that disability payments are the problem more than pensions:

"There is no place for a disabled firefighter right now to remain within the fire department. So a man or a woman who can only do 70 percent of a functional capacity test, we can't work them."

  • Jenkerson says larger departments often have positions with their academy, or inspection units, for firefighters still able to work in some capacity. St. Louis city would have to create such positions.
  • Also today, police chief Dan Isom reveled new restrictions on the use of department cars.  Currently, a limited number of people - mostly those who are on-call nearly 24-7 like Chief Isom and district captains - are able to drive department cars when off-duty. The new policy will limit the cars to on-duty use only. The department is currently paying about $2.44 per gallon for gas, but the contract expires in June, and officials expect to pay about $3.50. That could add $1 million in transportation costs.