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St. Louis Civil Service Commission approves pay cuts opposed by firefighters

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 1, 2010 - St. Louis firefighters withstood a packed, overheated meeting room Wednesday night to reinforce their position that they're unfairly being targeted for pay cuts and possible staff reductions.

"You lay off firemen, you close firehouses, people die!" said Jeff Glorioso, vice president of Local 73 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, during a public hearing held by the city's Civil Service Commission.

This morning, the commission's three members voted unanimously in favor of the proposals, which include curbs on vacation pay and benefits for all city employees.

The matter now goes to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, where the measure is expected to be formally introduced on Friday.

Although the plan initially had not called for layoffs, city budget and personnel officials acknowledged Wednesday that a couple dozen firefighters may lose their jobs as part of expected city-government layoffs of about 70 employees.

Five holidays -- including Truman's birthday and the day after Thanksgiving -- would become unpaid "furlough" days for all city workers, saving the city an estimated $2.2 million.

City workers also would see an end to further accruals of sick days that could be cashed out upon retirement -- or used to beef up an employee's years of service, thus increasing their pension. Future accrued sick time would be reclassified as "medical leave," with no retiree benefit.

Ten of the city's 11 unions have approved the changes, some of which are temporary.

But the city's 600-plus firefighters and Local 73 are resisting the city's effort to eliminate their nighttime pay differential, and to eliminate three of the eight "O" days granted the firefighters annually as compensation days. The "O" days have been in place for at least 20 years to keep firefighters weekly hours on the job below the 52-hour maximum mandated under federal wage-and-hour laws for firefighters. Hours above that amount qualify for overtime pay.

During Wednesday's hearing, which lasted just over an hour, firefighter officials and commissioners haggled over whether the "O" days had ever truly been negotiated and how they came to pass.

The days were granted by executive order by former Mayor Jim Conway, during the late 1970s, as part of a settlement of a legal dispute over the hours worked by city firefighters, which then averaged more than the 52-hour-a-week federal ceiling.

Firefighters contend that eliminating the "O" days will increase the city's overtime costs, and note that the new budget calls for less overtime pay for firefighters. They said it also is unfair to target firefighters' holiday pay since the Fire Department is staffed at all times, including holidays.

Local 73 leaders estimate that city firefighters are being asked to work an additional 112 hours more a year without pay.

Arguably the most passionate defense of the firefighters came not from one of their own, but from St. Louis resident Jeff Proctor, who said that his family recently had needed the Fire Department. "I'm so sick of hearing these guys being attacked on everything," Proctor said. "When these guys leave ... who's going to protect my family?"

Although firefighters and Local 73 officials declined to say so publicly at the hearing, several asserted privately as they stood or sat in the packed meeting room that they believe that City Hall is going after their pay because the firefighters succeeded in persuading the Legislature and Gov. Jay Nixon to pass a bill that allows St. Louis firefighters to live outside the city after they've been employed seven years.

Nixon signed the measure into law last week. This week, St. Louis sued the state, saying that the state is violating its constitution, which says such decisions in charter cities must be made by city residents.

City deputy mayor Barbara Geisman denied any link. She said city budget officials have worked since April -- long before the firefighter residency issue emerged -- on the pay issues affecting all city workers. The cuts are needed to bridge an expected city-revenue shortfall of close to $50 million, she said.

Geisman said the key issue that the city faces regarding the firefighters is their increased pension costs of close to $6 million for the coming fiscal year.

City Personnel Director Richard Frank noted that firefighters' pensions are close to 80 percent of their current salary. The large pensions reflect, in part, the fact that firefighters don't get Social Security -- and the life-threatening nature of their jobs.

Geisman acknowledged during the hearing that reducing the "O" days and holiday comp time for the firefighters doesn't achieve actual savings unless the number of firefighters is reduced. About 40 are expected to retire during the budget year, and presumably won't be replaced.

After the meeting, Local 73 President Chris Molitor said that city officials have long targetted the firefighters "O" days and the night-shift differentials during pay negotiations, even when the city did not have the money problems it faces now.

Like many public-employee pensions, the firefighters' pension funds are under economic strain because the stock market has plummeted over the last couple years, curbing the investment growth that governments had counted on to keep their annual payments down, Molitor said.

In any event, he said that city firefighters will be lobbying the aldermen to block some of the pay-reduction proposals that the Civil Service Commission approved.

Geisman said later Thursday, “As we prepared for FY11, we had a $46 million 'hole' in the City’s general revenue budget. We strove to address this hole with a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer—we used a variety of techniques to balance the budget. These techniques included new revenue sources like the new 'solid waste services fee', new revenue from Emergency Medical Service billing, and new revenues from a variety of fee increases. Techniques also included cuts in all but three departmental budgets (including approximately 80 layoffs and the elimination of an additional 100 vacant positions), and temporary “redeployment of revenues that would ordinarily have been spent on improvements to our capital facilities, as well as adjustments in compensation.

Our goal in developing the pay plan was to offset unavoidable compensation increases (e.g., increases in pension payments, expiring furloughs) with changes that save money in other areas (e.g., new furloughs, overtime calculation adjustments). For the 4,500 non-firefighters in the Civil Service pay plan, increases in pension payments and expiring furloughs made up approximately $3.3 million of the $46 million budget gap; for the 631 firefighters, increases in pension payments made up $5.8 million of the $46 million gap..."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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