ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOX) — Like an attic window showing smoke but no flames yet, there was heated debate in the aldermanic Public Safety Committee about proposed changes to the firefighters’ pension system — changes backers say are needed to keep the city from going broke, changes the firefighters’ union says would lead to a lawsuit.
The plan, which must be passed out soon in order to meet the June 30th budget deadline, was held up for now on technicalities about benefits to firefighters. But both sides were fighting for their positions.
The sponsor of the plan that would end state control of the firefighters’ pension system and let the city run a new system is Alderman Craig Schmid.
“If you don’t change the system, the math tells you that at a point it’s an unsustainable plan,”Schmid said, “So, either we’re going to have to be cutting additional personnel, which would be more firefighters and more police, which puts us in public safety jeopardy , or we’re going have to go back to get additional funds, or the city’s going to go broke.”
Firefighters’ Union Local 73 President Chris Molitor warned that if the plan is passed into law, it will go to court.
“We certainly have legal opinions that this action would be illegal, and obviously we would challenge it in court,” Molitor said.
Schmid was nonchalant about the looming court fight, saying backers of the plan have their own legal opinions.
“We have a 1960 bill that indicates we have the opportunity to opt out of this plan,” Schmid said, “This current plan allows us to continue to have that opportunity. We don’t want to take that opportunity away. There have been court decisions that have talked about the fact that we are voluntarily in these programs, and so it’s not a violation of Hancock that we are somehow having an unfunded mandate.”
Expressing the worry of firefighters, who do not qualify for social security, Molitor says a lot is riding on this for every working firefighter.
“The worst part of it is the ability of the city to terminate our pension plan at anytime through a change of ordinance and say we have no contractual rights to our pension benefits ,” Molitor said.
The Public Safety committee is expected to take up the plan again next week, and possibly vote it out onto the full board floor for consideration. A rival bill sponsored by Alderman Joe Vaccaro, and backed by Board President Lewis Reed and Comptroller Darlene Green, would enact lesser pension cuts to the firefighters’ pension system. That bill has enabling legislation from the state legislature and the blessing of the firefighters’ union.