Competing plans to overhaul the pension system for St. Louis firefighters could wind up in the Missouri Legislature’s hands despite St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s efforts to avoid that arena and make the decision closer to home. The joint House-Senate Committee on Public Employee Retirement took the first step today toward getting in the middle of the issue by hearing an overview of the dispute from Slay’s office and firefighters.
Meanwhile, House Retirement Committee Chairman Mike Leara, R-south St. Louis County, filed a bill that would mirror a proposed pension overhaul backed by the firefighters’ union — an approach already branded inadequate by the mayor.
However, there were no political fireworks at today’s hearing. Slay did not attend, nor did Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, who has sided with firefighters. Reed is considered a potential challenger to Slay for mayor. Reed and Slay are Democrats.
Sen. Jason Crowell, who chairs the joint committee, set the tone by telling the audience the meeting was “not an opportunity to try to score political points. If this gets down to the primary battle for the mayor’s office, I’ll end this meeting and you can take it outside,” said Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau.
Instead, the 1 1/2 -hour long session served as a primer for legislators on what has gone wrong with the firefighters’ pension system and possible ways to fix it.
The current system is unaffordable, with costs that have risen 280 percent over the past decade, according to information distributed by the city’s budget director, Paul Payne.
About one-third of the Fire Department’s operating budget goes toward paying pension costs. Nearly half of retired firefighters are on disability pensions.
A Post-Dispatch analysis last month found that many disabled retirees continue collecting their pensions while they go back to work, some to jobs that involve physical labor.
Slay’s plan would make no changes for current retirees and “miniscule changes” for firefighters nearing retirement, said Sam Dotson, the mayor’s director of operations. Future firefighters, however, would see major reductions in benefits.
For example, firefighters — those working now and those hired in the future — would pay 9 percent of their paychecks to the system, up from 8 percent. Future contributions would not be refunded at retirement, as they are now.
The minimum age to draw full benefits would be set at 55; there is no minimum age now. Those on disability would get smaller checks, along with five years of college training for new jobs.
While Slay wants the Board of Aldermen to set up the new pension plan, the firefighters’ union wants to keep control in Jefferson City. That provides “checks and balances,” said Kenny Mitchell, first vice-president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 73.
Firefighters noted that, after the Legislature passes enabling legislation for pension changes, the city’s aldermanic board has the option to adopt the proposed benefits — or not.
“Every benefit we have today has been passed by the Board of Aldermen,” said retired firefighter Bruce Williams, a member of the pension board.
Williams said the firefighters’ union is receptive to cutting benefits for new hires, as Leara’s bill would.
Whether Slay can cut promised benefits for existing employees was at issue, with Dan Tobben, an attorney for the Fireman’s Retirement System of St. Louis, contending such changes would be illegal and Slay’s lawyer, Patti Hageman, disagreeing.
“We are very confident…we are able to opt out of the current firefighter system,” Hageman said.
Crowell, who called the meeting “a first salvo of where we are,” said he would be glad to work on a bill to trim the system’s costs. He noted that the Legislature scaled back benefits for future state employees in the Missouri State Employees Retirement System a few years ago.
From a practical standpoint, Crowell encouraged Slay’s representatives to re-evaluate their strategy of opting out of the state system.
“Even if you can do it legally, you may not be successful in the Board of Aldermen,” Crowell said. “I stand ready, willing and able to try to get something rather than nothing.”