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Slay and firefighters at odds over pensions, prompting 30 layoffs

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 16, 2011 - The longstanding battle between St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay's administration and the city's firefighters took another turn Tuesday, when the mayor's office announced that it was laying off 30 firefighters to cover the skyrocketing costs of the firefighters' pensions.

The two sides are already in court over the mayor's change last summer in the way city workers' unused sick days apply to their pensions and retirement. In addition, the mayor's office has filed suit against the state of Missouri over the decision of Gov. Jay Nixon and the Legislature to allow the firefighters -- like the police -- to live outside the city limits after seven years.

The legal fights underscore the longstanding tensions between Slay and the firefighters (and now-former Fire Chief Sherman George) that arguably have been the region's prime example of high-profile disagreements between government and public employees.

The layoffs are in addition to 24 jobs to be eliminated through attrition; the total amounts to almost 10 percent of the Fire Department's 600 employees. No firehouses would be closed.

The job cuts are tied to the firefighters' pensions because, under state law, St. Louis must pay its pension obligations first before covering other department expenses.

"We've got to cut our losses,'' said Slay's chief of staff Jeff Rainford. He added in an interview that, regarding the layoffs, "the real question is, why didn't we do it earlier?"

At issue is the city's payment to the firefighters' pension plan, which went up $2.5 million this year and is slated to go up by $4.7 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1. The latter is almost three times the scheduled payment increase for the city's pension plan for city employees not with the fire or police departments.

Slay's office contends that the only reasonable fix is to reduce pensions for current firefighters. The firefighters' union says that's illegal, according to its lawyers.

Local 73 of the International Association of Firefighters has proposed to reduce pensions for future hires. Rainford said that doesn't solve the current fiscal problem. He added that pension lawyers disagree with the union's view that pensions for current employees can't be cut.

The current pension system allows firefighters to retire with partial pensions as early as age 38, and full pensions by age 48, after 20 years on the job. Slay's staff earlier proposed changes to require 25 years of service for a full pension, with a minimum age of 55.

Local 73 president Chris Molitor, a city firefighter, contends that the mayor and his staff haven't been amenable to any of the firefighters' proposals for dealing with the current pension-payment problems.

"The mayor is simply wanting to cut firefighters, period,'' Molitor said. "They seem intent on cutting and slashing right now."

Both sides agree on a change in the firefighters' disability program to save the city $1.2 million next year. Molitor said that the firefighters also have proposed an accounting change in the pension system to cut the city's pension payment by $6 million for the coming fiscal year.

Rainford says the change would only help for a few years and "simply kicks the can down the road."

A table laying out the proposed accounting change, provided by the mayor's office, shows that the city's projected contributions to the pension plan would be lower until 2020, when they would be higher than under the current setup.

Rainford said the problem is exacerbated because the firefighters' pension investments have lost $220 million in value over the past 10 years. Most of that decline occurred since the economic downtown in 2008.

Improved investment returns would help somewhat, he said, but would still be far below what is needed to address the fiscal issues facing the city.

The layoff announcement came after city and the firefighters met Monday. Molitor said that Slay's administration wanted to take all of the firefighters' extra days off given as compensation for their round-the-clock work schedules. The administration also reaffirmed its belief that pensions must be cut for current firefighters, he said.

The city's Board of Estimate and Apportionment had been slated to consider the layoffs and pension issues at its meeting Wednesday, but that meeting was postponed as a result of the death of the mayor's father. The Estimate Board's meeting has been rescheduled for March 25.

The Estimate Board is the city's chief fiscal body, made up of the mayor, comptroller and president of the Board of Aldermen. The board must OK layoffs before they can go into effect.

"We're hoping that cooler heads will prevail at that meeting and it will be stopped,'' Molitor said.

In announcing the layoffs, Slay's administration made a point of praising Police Chief Dan Isom, who "reworked the department's 2011 budget and, despite an increase in the cost of the Police Retirement System, will be able to avoid laying off police officers," the mayor's office said in a statement.

"In addition, the Police Retirement System has proposed changes to reduce future pension fund cost increases."

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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