Local 1889 attorney says MFPD board’s proposal to cut firefighters’ vacation time is ‘retaliation’

Goffstein wants judge, jury to ‘hammer’ Mehlville Fire Protection District directors

By MIKE ANTHONY

A proposal to reduce the vacation time of 24-hour Mehlville Fire Protection District employees is “retaliation” for a recent court victory, according to an attorney who represents Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

A St. Louis County Circuit Court judge last month granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors from making any changes to the district’s pension plan, and Local 1889 attorney John Goffstein told the Call Monday that the proposal to reduce the vacation time is a direct response to the union’s court victory.

“It’s an illegal retaliation for the proper exercise of constitutionally protected rights,” he said.

Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer, however, told the Call the proposal to reduce the vacation time of 24-hour employees has been in the works for some time, starting when he reviewed the district’s past two treasurer’s reports and noticed a significant increase in expenditures from March to April.

In a May 30 memo to board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman, board Secretary Dan Ottoline Sr. and Chief Jim Silvernail, Hilmer wrote that he asked Comptroller Jeff Geisler the reason for the increase and was told “increased overtime, plus sick leave and vacation payouts. Until then, I didn’t realize the amount of vacation that was being given out. I assumed that if a 24-hour employee received, for example, 20 days off that it was roughly four weeks off.

“I was incorrect as … the 20 days off only apply to shift days, therefore giving an employee roughly eight weeks off. In my opinion, this is extremely excessive, irresponsible and needs to be reduced,” Hilmer wrote.

The memo, which contained three scenarios for a new vacation schedule for 24-hour employees, also stated, “If you notice, I am also proposing that we eliminate the amount of vacation picks in both divisions from four to three and from two to one in conjunction with changing the days given. Conceptually, our savings would be in eliminating the necessity of six — swing — positions. Based on the average cost of an employee … the district could realize a maximum savings of $654,000.”

During a board meeting May 31, Hilmer discussed the memo, noting that the first option is nearly identical to the city of Webster Groves’ policy.

“… That doesn’t change anything for employees with less years of service, but the further you get out on the curve, it curtails it down to a more reasonable 12 days instead of 20 … So that would become a much more reasonable five weeks, give or take a few days, which is the maximum we give anyone else that works here,” he said.

In response to questions from Ottoline, Hilmer noted that the most vacation time anyone else in the bargaining unit can receive is 25 working days — roughly five weeks — and Option 1 brings a lot more parity to the vacation schedule.

Stegman said of the options, she preferred the first option.

“Out of the three, I would go with Option 1 and then see if there’s any other proposals from the bargaining unit,” she said.

Ottoline said, “Personally, I think we ought to leave it alone.”

The board took no action on the vacation schedule proposals.

Local 1889 first filed suit against the district’s three board members in late 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. A judge ruled in favor of the board, but Local 1889 has appealed.

A second suit was filed against the board this spring over proposed changes to the pension plan. On May 25, Judge Thea A. Sherry granted Local 1889’s request for a preliminary injunction, prohibiting the board from making any changes to the pension plan and setting a hearing on the union’s request for permanent injunctive relief during the week of Oct. 2.

“It seems like these people keep inventing new ways of shooting themselves in the foot, and it’s clearly actionable,” Goffstein said of the proposal to reduce the vacation time of 24-hour employees. “No one believes them for a minute, and what we’ll do, we’ll just see what the jury says about that. We are going to be asking the judge and the jury to hammer these directors hard and personally. In 40 years of law practice, I can’t think of anybody who deserves it more.”

But Hilmer discounted any allegations of retaliation.

“What’s interesting is some people will term this as retribution or retaliation, but what’s interesting is we’re not talking about any of the 40-hour personnel who are also in the union. We’re trying to bring this vacation schedule back in line,” he told the Call. “Quite honestly, it would be irresponsible of the district to continue to give two months of vacation to people with $100,000-plus pay packages a year.

“This was in the works before the judge’s ruling on the preliminary injunction,” he said. “This is in line with everything else Bonnie and I have done, and that is to bring the district to a more responsible operating state and to provide tax relief to the residents, which is in the public’s best interest.”