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St. Louis firefighters counter Slay's proposal, denounce his tactics

St. Louis firefighters counter Slay's proposal, denounce his tactics

Building fire

A St. Louis firefighter looks on as other firefighters contain a fire in St. Louis on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011 in St. Louis. The building is a part of the old Crunden Martin Manufacturing Company complex on South Second Street. Photo by Johnny Andrews,

ST. LOUIS • The local firefighters union gathered at City Hall this morning to announce a counterproposal to Mayor Francis Slay's fire retirement overhaul, and denounce the mayor's negotiation tactics.

The plan proposed by the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 73 would also deeply cut benefits for those not yet hired - in some cases even deeper than the mayor recommends - but would leave benefits intact for current employees.

"During our negotiations it was clear that the city had no intention of reaching a compromise with the firefighter's union," said Local 73 President Chris Molitor. "We made several proposals trying to meet somewhere in the middle, and the city held fast to its demands."

Molitor said the union plan would save $6.6 million each year for the next several. He said it would change the accounting method used to fund the pensions, reduce disability benefits as already proposed, return 75 percent instead of all of each firefighter's pension contributions, decrease final salary calculations, and add a minimum retirement age of 55 or 30 years of service.

But Sam Dotson, the mayor's director of operations, said the city has worked hard with the union to come to terms, and came to impasse because firefighters weren't willing to change any benefits for active employees, or discuss their former sick leave benefit, over which the firefighters have sued.

And the union's proposed change in accounting method, Dotson said, isn't enough savings, long-term.

"Really, what it is, its refinancing your house," he said. "It's kicking the can down the road.

"We can't afford to kick the can down the road any longer. Somebody is going to have to take responsibility to address these issues," he said. "That's what the legislation we proposed does."

At least 50 city firefighters lined the City Hall rotunda steps in support of the union proposal.

Firefighters said they were concerned both for their own pensions, and for those already retired.

"This is more than altering benefits, this is a pure and simple money grab by room 200, and hopefully the board of aldermen will see this bill for what it is," said Bruce Williams, a retired fireman, former union president, and current trustee for the Firemen's Retirement System of St. Louis.

James Kern, a 51-year-old private at Engine House 32, said he was planning on retiring in about eight years, but he's not sure if he can make the money work if the mayor's bills pass. "I'm going to be one of those guys who say, "Welcome to Walmart," he said.

But he's also not sure he can work until he's into his mid- or even late- 60s. "This is a young man's job," he said.

Moreover, he said, he doesn't trust the city's intentions. "We don't know what they're up to," he continued.

Other firefighters there agreed. "I think it's an attempt by the mayor to get his hands on the $400 million we have (in the pension fund)," said James Morgan, 59, a captain with 34 years in the department and as little as a year left, currently, until retirement.

Now, Morgan said, maybe he'll just retire. "The longer I stay," he said, "the more likely it is that I'll lose benefits."

The two pension overhaul bills, written and championed by Slay, were introduced moments later, at the morning's board of aldermen meeting.

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