ST. LOUIS — Aldermen advanced a measure Friday that would move oversight of a new fire pension plan back under a firefighter-controlled board of trustees despite last-minute concerns raised by top city financial officials.
The 22-2 vote came after warnings from Budget Director Paul Payne and Comptroller Darlene Green that the measure would undo good-government reforms and erode hard-fought efforts to check pension liabilities. A corresponding bill must pass in the state Legislature to allow the change.
Alderman Tom Oldenburg, D-16th Ward, emphasized his bill, which will require another vote before it goes to Mayor Lyda Krewson, would simply move oversight of the new pension plan to the old board without changing retiree benefits.
“What we’re talking about today is not touching those benefits,” Oldenburg said. “What we’re simply doing today is to say: Let’s give a morale boost to the firefighters.”
The old pension board awarded its four employees $17,000 in bonuses last year, and paid total salaries of $457,000.
In addition to establishing a lower-cost pension plan for new firefighters to slow the growing strain on the city budget, the 2012 reforms put the new plan under a board where city appointees hold a majority rather than firefighters. Employees of the new plan are governed by civil service and procurement regulations, an effort to address concerns about huge benefit packages given to employees of the old fire system board.
After a lawsuit challenging the city reforms, a judge upheld the two-plan system, allowing the old board of trustees to “accomplish an orderly termination and winding up” of the old pension system for existing beneficiaries. The old plan’s four staff members have an annual payroll of $457,000, including bonuses totaling $17,000 last year. That is more than twice the overhead of the city’s management of the new plan.
Still, Oldenburg argued his bill, co-sponsored by over 20 aldermen, would save the city money by consolidating management of the pensions under the old board. Payne, the budget director, has said if the bill were truly about cost savings, the effort would be to move the old system under the less-costly city management team.
Four office workers have richest benefits among public employees in St. Louis, officials say.
John Brewer, executive director of the old pension system, told the Post-Dispatch that benefits for system employees were reduced in 2014 and have not been adjusted since then. He said the system won’t increase the pay of its employees if it takes over management of the new plan.
In the midst of election season, few aldermen were willing to publicly challenge the powerful firefighters union pushing the bill. But Alderman Shane Cohn, who does not have an election opponent, pointed out that Alderman Vicky Grass, D-12th Ward, retired from the old system in 2015 with a $579,000 cash payout and a $58,440 annual pension. He also called out the $17,000 in bonuses paid to the system’s four employees last year.
“My colleague from the 16th Ward might think that’s fiscally responsible,” said Cohn, D-25th Ward. “I personally take exception to that.”
“If it’s the intention of the 25th Ward alderman to smear and over-sensationalize the stories that have been in the Post-Dispatch from eight or nine years ago, I don’t feel that’s a relevant point,” he said.
Vicky Grass, the former director of the system, receives $579,210, plus pension and other benefits.
“Keep your comments pertinent to the board bill that’s in front of us,” President Lewis Reed, a co-sponsor of the measure and a candidate for mayor, told Cohn. Alderman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, is also a co-sponsor of the pension bill and a mayoral candidate.
Some original sponsors grew hesitant about rushing through the bill — introduced just two weeks ago — without having more time to hear from Payne and Green. The chair of the board’s public safety committee, Joe Vaccaro, D-23rd Ward, did not allow testimony at the committee hearing on the bill earlier this month, which Payne called “odd.”
Vaccaro said he didn’t allow firefighter union interests to testify, either, and the move was only because of an agenda packed with controversial items. It’s his decision whether to allow public testimony or not, he added.
Alderwoman Annie Rice, D-8th Ward, originally a sponsor who ended up voting “present,” moved unsuccessfully to send the bill back to committee for a hearing.
“This is so big and so hairy, I really support trying to get some more clear testimony,” she said. But aldermen defeated Rice’s motion 21-6.
Originally posted Friday at 4:30 p.m.