Trustees of the Firemen’s Retirement System of St. Louis sued the city Tuesday, as they have threatened to do for months, to block Mayor Francis Slay’s sweeping pension overhaul — even as the mayor’s plan continued to roll through the Board of Aldermen. The trustees’ six-count suit seeks a temporary restraining order and judgment against Slay’s proposal, which would close the current fire pension system and replace it with one with vastly less-expensive benefits.
The mayor’s plan, the suit says, is a ‘scheme” to illegally reduce pension benefits and control the fund and will cause “drastic and immediate harm” to the system.
Leaders of the retirement system said it was their duty to sue.
“We hope that this lawsuit and a court ruling in our favor will end, once and for all time, the attempts by the City of St. Louis to control firefighter pensions and benefits,” system executive director Vicky Grass said in a prepared statement. “The system is not broken and once the economy rebounds, the crisis will end. We have been diligent in the handling of pensions for retirees and benefits for firefighters and it is senseless to try to reinvent (the system) under city control.”
Slay’s office dismissed the suit as wasteful and premature — if carefully timed.
“They used taxpayers’ money to file this lawsuit against the taxpayers,” said Slay’s chief of staff, Jeff Rainford. “The lawsuit seeks to allow them to continue to use taxpayers’ money to sue the taxpayers. That is just plain wrong. If they want to sue the taxpayers, they should use their own money.”
Slay has been working for a year-and-a-half on his fire pension overhaul. He and his staff have long said that the costs of its three retirement systems — for police, firefighters and civil servants — threaten to break the city budget. Fire pensions — the most expensive per city worker — will cost $29 million next fiscal year, a 20 percent increase over this year, and a 350 percent increase this decade. On Tuesday, Slay’s third and most expansive pension bill, which rewrites future firefighter benefits, won a crucial vote by the aldermanic Public Safety Committee.
The bill passed, 7-4, after nearly three hours of debate. Aldermen added two amendments, largely in response to firefighter concerns. One of them removes clauses that would allow the city to terminate the plan and declare that firefighters have no contractual rights. The bill could be voted on by the full board as early as June 22.
Rainford said he expects to have at least 18 of 29 aldermanic votes for the legislation.
SUIT WAS EXPECTED
Rainford also said the city has been expecting this suit. “We look forward to defending the taxpayers and protecting their rights and their money,” he said. “We are very well-prepared.”
The suit comes just as the second of the mayor’s bills — Board Bill 11 — heads to the board Friday for debate. The bill, if passed, would strip the retirement system trustees of their ability to sue over just such an issue.
Dan Tobben, outside counsel for the retirement system, filed the suit Tuesday morning in St. Louis Circuit Court, motivated in part, he said, by the potential passage of Board Bill 11.
The city cannot change or repeal sections of its charter or state statute governing the system, the suit says. Only the state legislature can enact statutes, it says.
Moreover, the suit says the mayor’s attempt to cut benefits violates the contract rights of firefighters and breaks both the state and federal constitutions.
Tobben rejected Rainford’s argument that the system was using taxpayer money to sue.
“It’s not the taxpayers’ money,” Tobben said. “It’s money set aside for firefighters. It’s the trustees’ duty to sue if things are done illegally with respect to FRS.”