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Aldermen advance bill on firefighters’ pensions

CITY HALL – A change in the way two firefighters pension programs are administered has received initial approval of the Board of Alderman, over the opposition of Comptroller Darlene Green and Budget Director Paul Payne. The change would allow the Board of Trustees of the older Firemen’s Retirement System (FRS) to also run the newer St. Louis Firefighters’ Retirement Plan (FRP). Supporters say it would save administrative costs. Opponents say it could cost taxpayers millions in the long run.

The vote was 22 for approval, 2 against and five present. A vote on final approval may come at the next meeting, 

The Firefighters’ Retirement Plan was formed in 2013 and covers all firefighters hired since then. The Firemen’s Retirement System covers firefighters hired before then. They have separate boards and separate staffs to administer them, said 16th Ward Alderman Thomas Oldenburg, the bill’s sponsor. 

“This is not about benefits. It’s not about changing anything that firefighters will receive,” 19th Ward Alderman Marlene Davis said. “This is only about administration of the funds.” 

But both Payne and Green issued statements expressing their opposition.

“The Firefighters’ Retirement Plan (FRP) came about as part of an effort to address the rising cost of city pension contributions. It was the result of years of work by multiple offices and elected officials to gain control from the state over pension plans, reduce administrative costs and introduce good governance,” the comptroller wrote. 

“Board Bill 221 would undo many of these hard-earned gains amid an economy weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Its passage would negatively affect the city’s already stressed operating budget and ability to provide services,” Green wrote. ‘The most fiscally responsible action would be to consider any new reforms once the economy is rebuilding and the city is seeing healthier revenues.”

The Firefighters’ Retirement Plan was established by a city ordinance passed in 2012 to fix a serious shortfall in the Firemen’s Retirement System, Payne wrote. While the old system was governed by state statute, the new one is locally controlled, he saiThe city established the Firefighters’ Retirement Plan as part of an effort to deal with rising costs in the Firemen’s Retirement System. Pension costs increased from $6.4 million in fiscal year 2001 to 29.1 million in fiscal year 2013. At the end, they made up a third of the Fire Department budget, Payne’s report said.

Considering the concerns, 22nd Ward Alderman Jeffrey L. Boyd said he’d like to have heard from the budget director or St. Louis Firefighters Local 73.

Some aldermen said they thought the board should send the bill back to the Public Safety Committee for more discussion and public testimony. They noted that when that committee held a hearing on it recently, its chair, 23rd Ward Alderman Joseph Vaccaro, didn’t allow public testimony. 

Vaccaro said he had made a decision not to take testimony and noted that 22 aldermen were cosponsors of the bill.

“No one from the public asked to engage,” he said. However, he said, he heard the night before the meeting and during the meeting that some people wanted to speak. 

A motion to send the measure back to committee died in a vote of eight yes, 18 no and one present. Then the board voted for preliminary approval.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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