Fire-alarm employees again receive 2-percent pay hike

Hilmer says he appreciates willingness of SCFAA employees to work with board

By MIKE ANTHONY

A 2008 budget that includes 2-percent raises for all South County Fire Alarm Association employees and leaves health-insurance benefits unchanged recently was approved by the Board of Directors.

This is the second consecutive budget that provides a 2-percent raise for SCFAA employees and leaves their health-insurance benefits unchanged.

The SCFAA is a non-profit corporation that provides dispatching services for the Mehlville Fire Protection District and other area fire departments. Two of its three board members are members of the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors — Aaron Hilmer and Bonnie Stegman.

The third board member serves as chairman and is Dan Wilburn of the Valley Park Fire Protection District Board of Directors.

SCFAA employees — with the exception of the general manager and assistant manager — are members of Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

The balanced 2008 budget projects both revenues and expenditures of $1,223,132.91, up roughly 3.6 percent from the 2007 balanced budget that projects both revenues and expenditures of $1,180,644.36.

Under the approved 2008 memorandum, salaries will range from $52,444.57 for lead dispatchers to $36,061 for probationary employees. Probationary-employee pay actually increased by slightly more than 3 percent — to $36,061 from $35,000. The 2008 budget also provides that the percentage of district-paid premiums for dependent medical, dental and vision insurance will remain unchanged at 70 percent. The district pays 100 percent of employee premiums for such coverage.

In early 2006, the SCFAA board voted to change the association’s primary pension plan for employees from a defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan. The SCFAA board approved the plan Jan. 28, 2006, and enacted it March 1, 2006

Under the defined-contribution plan, SCFAA contributes 6 percent of an employee’s salary to a 401(a) plan on a monthly basis. Employees can make additional contributions to a supplemental 457 deferred-compensation pension plan. Monthly benefits provided to existing retirees were not affected by the changes to the pension plan.

In June 2006, the SCFAA Board of Directors unanimously decided to enhance employees’ supplemental 457 deferred-compensation pension plan. An amendment adopted by the board calls for the SCFAA to match contributions equal to half an employee’s elective deferrals for up to 4 percent of that employee’s compensation.

Simply put, employees now have the opportunity to be compensated an extra 2 percent in their pension plan on top of the 6 percent that they already receive.

Regarding the 2008 budget, Hilmer told the Call he was pleased that SCFAA employees will receive 2-percent salary increases for the second consecutive year and that health-insurance benefits will remain unchanged.

“This is the second straight year we’ve been able to do this — give the across-the-board, 2-percent raises. And, as you know, we went in there, we made an initial round of changes — reduced the health insurance, what we pay,” he said, noting that in the past the district had paid 100 percent of premiums for dependent coverage. “We changed the pension plan. And we were able to accomplish this due to the cooperation between labor and management, and both of us recognizing that these reforms were necessary.

“I think that’s such an important point because that’s why we made one first round of cuts and because we worked together on it, we’ve been able to contain things going forward. So those reforms are bearing fruit right now.”

Though SCFAA employees and Mehlville Fire Protection District employees belong to the same union, Hilmer noted MFPD union employees have reacted much differently to proposed changes than fire-alarm employees.

For example, MFPD union employees challenged in court efforts to change the fire district’s pension fund to a defined-contribution plan from a defined-benefit plan.

But their request for a permanent injunction prohibiting the change was denied in August by Circuit Court Judge Thea A. Sherry.

Local 1889 filed the lawsuit in March 2006, just days after the MFPD Board of Directors voted on March 16, 2006, to adopt an amendment and two resolutions changing the district’s pension plan from a defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan. Sherry initially granted a temporary restraining order and later a preliminary in-junction prohibiting the board from taking any action to change the pension plan.

Sherry’s Aug. 27 ruling dissolved the preliminary injunction and denied Local 1889’s request for a permanent injunction prohibiting changes to the pension plan.

John Goffstein, an attorney representing MFPD union employees, since has filed a motion for a new trial and a motion for an injunction pending appeal. Sherry heard Goffstein’s motions on Oct. 22, but has yet to rule.

MFPD union employees also were unsuccessful in an earlier lawsuit filed against the board.

They filed suit in June 2005, asking the court to prohibit the board from implementing a disability-benefit contract with Standard Insurance and eliminating current disability benefits from the district’s existing pension plan.

On Feb. 24, 2006, St. Louis County Circuit Judge Barbara Crancer granted the board’s motion for summary judgment, dissolving a preliminary injunction and dismissing Local 1889’s suit. Earlier this year, the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals issued an order affirming Crancer’s dismissal of Local 1889’s lawsuit.

In May, the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear the lawsuit, ending the legal action.

Hilmer said he appreciates SCFAA employees’ willingness to work with the board, particularly Brad Barton, SCFAA shop steward.

“The first time I met Local 1889 shop steward Brad Barton, he greeted me with an outstretched hand and a smile on his face. We then had a pleasant conversation where we discussed issues of importance to each party and what we could do to address them. Contrast this to the first conversation I had with the leader of Mehlville’s firefighters’ union,” he said, referring to then-MFPD Local 1889 President Chris Francis. “He called me to see what the make and model of my car was so they could replace the windshield that was smashed out the previous evening. Unfortunately, that was the high point of the behavior of their leadership and it was straight into the gutter from there.

“I subscribe to the old saying that an open hand accomplishes more than a closed fist or in Mehlville’s union’s case, a baseball bat … Why the employees continue to break their backs so their incompetent union bosses can make $35,000 a year to drive them into the ground is beyond me. But that’s a choice they make when it comes time to elect them, and I think it’s an interesting contrast between how the leadership at fire alarm 1889 has worked and how the leadership at Mehlville has worked.”