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Tweaks To New Pensions For City Firefighters Get First-Round Approval

(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)
Mayor Francis Slay is proposing major changes to the firefighter's pension system that could reduce benefits for new hires.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen is a step closer to addressing some legal concerns with its new pension system for firefighters.

The measure cleared a procedural hurdle today, 18-10. A final vote will take place next week, likely with a similar result.

Judge Robert Dierker issued a preliminary ruling in October that the city was in rights to terminate the old pension system for firefighters and start a new one. But Dierker had some concerns about the way the new system treated vested employees.

Under the first version of the "new" system:

  • Firefighters who had been with the department for 20 years or more and were thus eligible for retirement would still see their monthly payments into the system increase, and would not have received any of those contributions back at retirement.
  • It also set a minimum retirement age of 55, and, 
  • Eliminated a deferred retirement option designed to keep more experienced firefighters on the course.

The bill given preliminary approval today returns all of the above benefits to vested firefighters. (In other words, they'll stay in the old system. The measure also eliminates a lifetime cost-of-living adjustment cap for firefighters who become completely disabled on the job.) The sponsor, Fred Wessels, says it should address Dierker's concern.

"We're going to have not only a better opportunity to get this thing completely passed at the circuit court level, but it’s going to put the city in a better position at the appellate level," he said.

But Ald. Antonio French, a consistent critic of the pension changes, pointed out that firefighters brought forward a similar plan during negotiations.

"And that was rejected," French said. "And as a result, we’ve lost over a year of savings. We've paid over a million dollars in legal fees, all because people were too stubborn to compromise. And now we come back and try to spin it as if, 'umm ,you know we thought about it, and we want to make a concession.' Bull."

The city will likely submit the changes to Judge Dierker. The new system would take effect Feb. 1, 2013, although it's not clear what happens if the trustees of the old system appeal Dierker's ruling.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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