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St. Louis firefighter layoffs postponed again

The "long and arduous" fight over the budget for the city's fire department will go on for another week.

The three-member Board of Estimate and Apportionment tabled the layoffs of 30 firefighters at the request of Board of Aldermen president Lewis Reed. Reed, comptroller Darlene Green, and Mayor Francis Slay will make the ultimate decision about the layoffs.

"We don't want to get ourselves into a situation where we have left ourselves vulnerable to a disaster," Reed said in thanking the other Board members for the delay. The firefighters have argued the layoffs, combined with the loss of 11 additional positions through attrition, would harm public safety.

This is actually the second delay - the meeting was originally supposed to take place the day Mayor Slay's father died.

It's supposed to buy time to negotiate a way to get the firefighter's pension costs under control. They'll go up by another $4.7 million next year.

The city has proposed a range of solutions, including making firefighters wait until they are 55 to draw a pension regardless of when they retire, and changing a provision that allows firefighters to be refunded all the contributions they've made to their retirement. The firefighters have come forward with their own proposal, but the city calls it mostly administrative changes that don't save money.

"I'm not sure" what we can get from a week, "but we'll find out," said firefighter's union president Chris Molitor.

Green, the comptroller, has proposed a furlough for all firefighter employees. But it's not clear that move would be legal because of a provision in the city charter requiring pay parity between the police and fire departments.

Pulling from the city's reserves to save the firefighters' jobs isn't much of an option either - the reserves are currently sitting at a scant $6 million compared to the preferred level of $23 million.

The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants (SAFER) grant has also been suggested as a possible solution. The grant would supply $3.2 million in funding, but takes effect next fiscal year, so it doesn't help with the current gap.

"We're going to do a week, and we're going to come back next week and hopefully we'll be here with something we can all agree to. And if not, we're going to have to do what we have to do," Slay said.

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