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Aldermen pass controversial firefighters pension change; ‘spy plane’ bill dies

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St. Louis Board of Aldermen Feb. 5, 2021

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen met online on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021

ST. LOUIS — The Board of Aldermen on Friday gave final approval to legislation giving a firefighter-controlled board supervision of all city fire pensions over the objections of two key city financial officials.

Aldermen passed the bill, 19-3, despite warnings from Comptroller Darlene Green and Budget Director Paul Payne that the measure reverses some of the reforms passed in 2012 that put a check on the city’s pension liabilities.

The issue, backed by the politically influential firefighters union, now goes to Mayor Lyda Krewson, who has yet to take a position on it.

The bill’s sponsor, Alderman Tom Oldenburg, said it simply moves oversight of a pension plan established a few years ago for younger firefighters and new hires to the decades-old board that still runs a separate system for veteran firefighters.

He emphasized that the measure makes no changes to any pension benefits and that any that might be sought in the future would have to get aldermanic approval.

“Those savings remain absolutely intact,” said Oldenburg, D-16th Ward, referring to reforms enacted in 2012 to limit the city’s liabilities.

Meanwhile, he said eliminating the separate board for the new system that has city appointees in the majority “puts workers in charge of their own financial destiny in terms of investment decisions that are going to be made.”

Opposing aldermen said they can’t see making the change when the comptroller and budget director are opposed.

Those two officials last month said the bill would remove local control of the new system that has resulted in reduced administrative costs. The old system was set up under state law.

“This feels very much like a step backward,” said Alderman Heather Navarro, D-28th Ward. “This is a huge disservice to all of the work that has been done. We should all be … deferring to them on this issue.”

Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward, added that bad investments made by a pension board could result in aldermen and other city officials being “on the hook” for making up pension fund losses with city budget funds.

The 2012 reforms established a lower-cost pension system with reduced benefits for firefighters with less than 20 years’ service. After a lawsuit challenging the reforms, a judge upheld the two-plan system.

Oldenburg and other supporters say the consolidation of the boards under the old one will save on administrative costs, a point disputed by Payne.

Under the measure, a separate board will still govern disability eligibility, a nod to the old system’s history of approving benefits for injured firefighters who went to work elsewhere.

Joining Navarro and Cohn in voting against the bill was Joe Roddy, D-17th Ward.

Support for the bill Friday fell one vote short of the 20 needed to override a mayoral veto. But two aldermen who supported the measure when it was given preliminary approval last month, Brandon Bosley, D-3rd Ward, and John Collins-Muhammad, D-21st Ward, were absent for Friday’s roll call.

Meanwhile, Vicky Grass, D-12th Ward, who also cast a favorable vote last month, abstained Friday. Grass, the former executive director of the old system, retired in 2015 with a $579,210 cash payout and a $4,800 monthly pension. Grass’ daughter-in-law is now an administrative assistant for the old system.

Four aldermen with concerns about the measure voted “present.”

One of them, Sharon Tyus, D-1st Ward, said if she were the mayor, she would veto the bill even though it could be regarded now as veto-proof.

She pointed out that an override vote couldn’t occur until the board’s next meeting April 19, two weeks after the city general election.

“The election would be over and so some people (on the board) would be under less stress” politically, she said.

‘Spy plane’ bill dies

Despite winning preliminary board approval last month on a 15-14 vote, a measure to authorize an aerial surveillance program as a crime-fighting tool has died, the sponsor, Oldenburg, said Friday.

Oldenburg blamed the aldermanic rules committee’s delay in sending the measure to the floor for a possible final vote. The panel did so Thursday but that was too late to get the bill on the agenda for Friday’s board meeting.

He said it would be difficult to retain the 15 favorable votes over the board’s two-month break, which began after Friday’s meeting. The board holds the last meeting of its 2020-2021 session on April 19. He said he might reintroduce the bill in the next session, which begins April 20.

Coronavirus aid

The board also passed a bill authorizing city agencies to spend about $88 million in additional federal aid from a coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress and from other programs.

Included are up to $75 million in health funds, $9.4 million in additional money to help low-income people cover rent and utility bills and $4 million to do the same for water and sewer bills.

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