Local 1889 rejects Mehlville fire board’s proposal to settle pension suit

‘There was not one ‘no’ vote,’ Local 1889 President Strinni says

By MIKE ANTHONY

Mehlville Fire Protection District union employees have voted unanimously to reject an offer from the Board of Directors to settle ongoing litigation involving the district’s pension plan.

Bob Strinni, president of Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, told the Call Sunday that the union will pursue an appeal of a ruling upholding the board’s authority to make changes to the pension plan.

Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer told the Call Sunday, “If they want to appeal a lawsuit they lost, fine. It again shows the public what Local 1889 is all about. Contrast their greedy entitlement mentality of always wanting more of the public’s money versus the board, where we are constantly figuring out ways to take less of the public’s money.”

Union employees’ request for a permanent injunction prohibiting the Board of Directors from changing the fire district’s pension plan to a defined-contribution plan from a defined-benefit plan was denied Aug. 27 by St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Thea A. Sherry.

On Dec. 24, Sherry denied union employees’ motion for a new trial, but granted their motion for an injunction pending appeal that prohibits the board from making any changes to the pension plan. Four days later, Local 1889 attorney John Goffstein filed a notice of appeal.

Regarding the union’s decision to reject the board’s proposal, Strinni said, “… There was not one ‘no’ vote. So I mean it was completely unanimous.”

Despite the rejection of the board’s proposal, he said union leaders are willing to work with the Board of Directors in an effort to resolve the matter.

“I think we need to sit down and negotiate in good faith and try to come up with something that both sides can live with … I’ve said this to the board: If we can sit down and agree, I mean the appeal can be pulled at any time,” Strinni said, noting that oral arguments most likely wouldn’t be scheduled until next fall.

Hilmer said, “If the residents decide that we are not taxing them hard enough and spending too little of their money, then they can give us the boot. But until that day comes, we will continue to improve their services, cut their taxes and make reforms …”

The Board of Directors’ proposal was a “counteroffer” to a settlement offer presented to the board Jan. 17 by the union’s Executive Board.

Among the union’s proposals were:

• A 3-percent increase in the current contribution rates for the defined-contribution plan, effective Jan. 1, 2009. As requested, those rates would range from employees with less than 15 years of service receiving 11 percent; 15 to 19 years, 12 percent; 20 to 24 years, 13 percent; and 25 or more years, 14 percent.

• Upgrade the Standard Insurance disability benefits to a higher level of payout.

• Matching contribution plan — for each 2 percent of an employee contribution, the district would match 1 percent, up to a 2-percent maximum.

The board’s proposals included:

• Contributions to the defined-contribution plan. For 2008, employees with 15 years of service would receive 22.5 percent; 15 to 19 years, 24.5 percent; 20 to 24 years, 26.5 percent; and 25 or more years, 30 percent. For 2009 and future years, employees with less than 15 years of service would receive 8 percent; 15 to 19 years, 9 percent; 20 to 24 years, 10 percent; and 25 or more years, 11 percent.

• An upgrade in the Standard Insurance disability benefits to a higher level of payout, excluding a change in the waiting period, which would remain at 180 days.

• A 457 match program. The district would match one-third of the first 6 percent of gross wages up to a maximum of 2 percent of total gross wages. The match program would be effective with the acceptance of the settlement.

Local 1889 informed the Board of Di-rectors that union employees had rejected the board’s offer in a Feb. 15 letter.

“However, the Executive Board of Local 1889 would welcome the opportunity to meet with the five trustees of the pension plan in an attempt to resolve these issues,” the letter stated.

But the district does not have such a five-member board. In fact, the board last summer filed a lawsuit in Cole County challenging the constitutionality of Senate Bill 406, which included the provision creating a five-member board of trustees to administer fire-district pension plans.

The five-member pension boards will be comprised of a fire district’s three-member board of directors and two plan participants chosen by the board of directors from a pool of three nominees elected by plan members, according to the law.

The suit had contended, “The state is in error with the passage of Section 321.800 RSMo., which is contrary to existing law.”

But the Board of Directors recently moved to dismiss the suit, according to Mehlville attorney Mathew Hoffman.

“The action filed in Cole County was initiated prior to the ruling issued by Judge Sherry in the St. Louis County Circuit Court, which was in favor of the Board of Directors,” Hoffman said. “Since there is an appeal, it is unclear the applicability of Judge Sherry’s decision at this time.

“There is a question as to whether or not the district has a defined-benefit plan to administer, which would require the appointment of the trustees,” he added.

The fire-district attorney noted the suit was dismissed without prejudice, meaning it could be refiled at a later date.