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PR: City Makes Proposal To Avert Deep Cuts In Fire Department

December 15, 2010 Press Release 9 Comments

The following press release just in from the mayor’s office:

ST. LOUIS-The City of St. Louis today put forward a proposal to avert deep cuts in the St. Louis Fire Department by stopping the spiraling cost increases of the Firemen’s Retirement System (FRS).

“These common sense changes are fair to both firefighters and taxpayers. They will ensure that firefighters get the pension they deserve when they need it,” said Jeff Rainford, Chief of Staff to Mayor Francis Slay. “But the changes will also ease the cost increases that threaten public safety.”

In 2001 and 2002, the state-created Fireman’s Retirement System lost $147 million on its investments. In 2008 and 2009, it lost $170 million. Under state law, the taxpayers of St. Louis must pay for those pension losses even though they did not control them. As a result, between 2001 and 2009 the cost to the taxpayer doubled. Between 2009 and 2011, it will double again. If FRS continues to miss its assumed investment gains, the costs will keep going up.

The City has already made cuts – millions of dollars of them – and the taxpayers have made sacrifices because of employee pension fund losses. The City has eliminated 600 civilian jobs. It has put off fixing broken infrastructure. It is not adequately maintaining parks. It has been forced to charge a fee for trash pickup. It raised the sales tax. It has dropped or cut back on some services. The mayor cut his own office budget by 7%; other offices have cut more or less.

By comparison, the fire department has been largely untouched.

The fire department budget has gone up by more than 40% in the last decade. Firefighter pay, health care, and pension costs have gone up by 73%. For every dollar taxpayers spend for a firefighter’s salary, taxpayers pay another 82 cents for firefighter fringe benefits, far more than private sector benefits.

These benefits costs fund one of the best public safety pensions in the country. St. Louis firefighters can retire with partial pensions as young as 38 years old. They can retire with full pensions as young as 48 years old. Injured firefighters get full disability pensions even if they are capable of doing other work. Firefighters get two weeks of sick pay each per year. When they don’t use it, they can save it up and get big checks and bigger pensions when they retire. (The City is trying to end sick leave buy-back, which is the subject of a lawsuit filed by FRS.)

“We want firefighters to be paid well and treated fairly because they do a dangerous job,” Rainford said. “But, taxpayers should not be treated like ATMs.”

The proposal, in essence, would result in some firefighters working a few additional years to get the same pension. It includes:

Increasing the minimum number of years before a firefighter can retire from 20 to 25.

For each year a firefighter works after 25 years, the value of their pension goes up. The City is proposing to reduce the annual increase slightly. It would have the effect of requiring firefighters to work a few years more to get the same pension.

Set the minimum age at which a retired firefighter can begin to collect a pension at 55 years old.

· Accepting a proposal from the International Association of Fire Fighters Local #73 that would require firefighters who are no longer able to physically do the job as a firefighter to do other work if they are able, rather than collect disability pensions.

· Requiring firefighter pension contributions to remain in the system when firefighters retire. Like many Americans who have pensions, the firefighters pay into their system. But, unlike most pensioners, they get the full contributions back when they leave the department.

· Changing the basis of pension calculations from the last two years of salary to the last three years of salary. That would put firefighter pensions more in line with public pensions across the country.

These proposed changes would be from now on only. No accumulated benefits would be cut.

Because FRS is created by state law, it will take action by the Missouri General Assembly to make all of the needed changes. Legislators have indicated they will not even consider the changes if firefighters oppose them.

“If we fail to agree and don’t change FRS, we will go down one path,” Rainford said. “There will be fewer working firefighters. There will be far less money for pay and health care for the firefighters who remain. Residents and businesses will be served by a diminished department. On the other hand, if we agree and successfully change FRS, the crisis is averted.”



Currently there are "9 comments" on this Article:

  1. Robby Dodson says:

    I sure hope there is the political will to take serious action and avert a crisis…

    This issue is a great example of what is going to happen throughout the government at all levels in teh next decade if we don't experience significant growth as a nation…

    These conversations are very hard to have…Who wants to cut anywhere, let alone our fire dept?

    But as long as the public discourse is all about 'whats in it for me' and 'but look how much they make' we will get no where…Real sacrifice will have to be made by all…And we should be ready for it…Our mayor and the entire City government have set an example…Lets hope Jeff City pays attention…We clearly cannot afford the current path…

  2. JZ71 says:

    From what I understand, compensation in suburban fire districts is better than that in the city. This is a tough issue to discuss rationally since it involves dangerous work, unions and “keeping up with the Joneses”, aka both the police and other fire departments, but it also involves how to best allocate limited fiscal resources. As a taxpayer, I want all our city employees to be treated fairly, but I also want needed services delivered efficiently and I don't want my taxes to go up.

    While this would be a step in the right direction, I doubt that it'll get much traction. I also don't have much problem with scaling back the size of the department and closing a few stations. Safety is relative. Actual fires have been reduced with better codes and better enforcement, and many fire runs are now medical and accident calls.

    If we wanted to be truly safe or safer, we'd be doubling the sizes of both our fire and police departments. We'd build more prisons and jails and we'd require full occupancy inspections every year or three. The reality is that we can't afford to, it would simply cost too much. The union keeps screaming that safety would be compromised and response times would increase if even one staton were closed. Well, yes, but by how much? 30 seconds? 3 minutes?

    Our firefighters were promised pensions, the city contributed what they were required to contribute, and the stock market tanked. Whose fault is that? My retirement plans took a big hit, too – will the taxpayers being backfilling my losses? Not hardly! Yes, government employees make sacrifices and many are dedicated workers. The same holds true in the private sector. Times have changed. City compensation doesn't exist in an insulated vaccuum, and its irrational to assume that their compensation can remain unchanged. Like the private sector, the city needs to match compensation, including benefits, to that available in the private sector!

    • chaifetz10 says:

      It all depends on which station they would have to close. Speaking from some volunteer experience back in Illinois; even 10-15 seconds can mean saving a structure or it burning to the ground as well as saving a life or a person going into full arrest.

      Plus loosing staff and stations only stretches the remaining department thinner as they have to cover more area with less resources. This could easily lead to more overtime and callbacks (if you have a big enough fire they would call off duty battalions to assist) which would cut into the overall savings.

      • JZ71 says:

        I agree. It all boils down to money. Do we spend it on fire protection or street repairs? Social services or the jail? But you may have an answer – maybe the city should look at starting a volunteer component within the paid fire service?! That way they can maintian staffing levels while reducing personnel costs . . .

        • chaifetz10 says:

          Volunteer fire departments are suited only to rural areas where there is not enough population to sustain a paid service. Especially within the city of St. Louis, where the size and amount of people/buildings is dense; volunteers would not provide a viable solution. Large metropolitan areas NEED paid, staffed, 24/7 services because of the sheer call volume. They work GREAT though in rural areas because of the smaller call volume and less number of working fires.

          I understand people's enthusiasm for more “free” services; however departments such as Fire, Police, and EMS need to be staffed by paid, trained professionals.

          • JZ71 says:

            I wasn't saying replace our paid department with a volunteer one – I agree that wouldn't work – I was saying look at the possibility of creating some volunteer positions. An increasing number of calls are medical ones, after all, so having a paid core/corps that responds to all calls, spplemented by volunteers that resond only to working fires, might help bridge the apparent funding gap.

          • chaifetz10 says:

            Still isn't a plausible solution. Working fires call for dozens of trained, equipped firefighters and can take up hours upon hours of work. In major metropolitan areas, paid firefighters are a necessity. Rural departments can get away with volunteers because most only have a few fires a year. The city of St. Louis (and the entire metro region for that matter) has multiple fires each week.

  3. adamflath says:

    Does anyone have any statistics on how dangerous it is to be a Fireman in St. Louis City? The only thing I have ever heard of that involved an injury was when the two firetrucks hit each other. Just because it is a dangerous job, doesn't necessarily mean it causes injuries or death, just means you have to take more precautions.

  4. Tiredofpolitics says:

    Fire and police aren't required to take mandatory furloughs while other city employees are required to take mandatory furloughs. Likewise, the political representatives make city employees take mandatory furloughs while they don't–a very hypocritical act in my book as a citizen and taxpayer. What ever happened to equal treatment under the laws? Why do we still continue to cater to unions/special interests? I also don't buy, “We want firefighters to be paid well and treated fairly because they do a dangerous job…” A lot of other city jobs are dangerous. Painters who stripe the streets are prone to being run over by careless/ignorant/selfish motorists. Parks employees can lose a limb while operating a chainsaw. An engineer overseeing a contractor's work in the wrong part of town could be mugged or killed by an undesirable member of society. The firefighters, just like the waitress who applies to work in an establishment that allows smoking, ought to know the risks before accepting the job. If they can't handle the risk, no one is forcing their employment.

    JZ71, “Like the private sector, the city needs to match compensation, including benefits, to that available in the private sector!” I like the way that you think. If the city would match my compensation with the private sector, my salary would increase ~70% at my current experience/education level!


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