Mehlville fire board eyes proposals to save $236,000 annually

By MIKE ANTHONY

Two proposals that could save nearly $236,000 annually are scheduled to be considered tonight — July 27 — by the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors.

The Board of Directors is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. at the district’s headquarters, 11020 Mueller Road.

A proposal to reduce the percentage of district-paid premiums for dependent medical, dental and vision insurance that would save nearly $146,000 annually will be considered by the board.

The board also will consider a proposal to change the vacation policy for 24-hour employees that would save roughly $90,000 annually.

The district currently pays 70 percent of the premiums for medical, dental and vision insurance for employees’ dependents. The board will consider a proposal to reduce the district-paid amount by 20 percent — to 50 percent. District employees will continue to have 100 percent of their premiums paid by the district for medical, dental and vision insurance. The proposal only would affect dependent coverage.

However, members of the Executive Board of Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters told the district’s Board of Directors Friday that they believe the 70-percent dependent coverage should remain unchanged. Noting the district had paid 100 percent of dependent coverage until last year, they said 70 percent was fair.

Regarding the vacation policy, the board will consider a proposal to cap vacation days for 24-hour employees at 12 days, which equates to roughly five weeks, according to Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer. Those employees currently can accrue up to 20 vacation days, which Hilmer says equates to roughly eight weeks.

But the board chairman noted that no employee would lose any vacation days they currently have. For example, employees with 20 days still would have the same number of days, but those with 12 days will not be able to accumulate any additional days. Those with less than 12 days would be able to accumulate a maximum of 12 days.

“It doesn’t lower what anyone has. It puts a cap on how many you can get. It goes from eight weeks to five weeks. No one’s losing anything under the board’s proposal,” Hilmer told the Call. “If you have 12 (days) right now, that’s all you can get is 12. There’s no taking whatsoever.”

In addition, the proposal would reduce to five from six the number of employees allowed to take vacations at one time, reducing overtime costs by roughly $90,000.

Members of the union’s Executive Board said Friday that they would agree to reduce the number of vacation picks to five from six, but believe the proposed cap on the number of vacation days only should apply to new employees hired after the policy is adopted.

“The board will consider the union’s proposals,” Hilmer told the Call. “We have two proposals. We’ll talk it over and see what the board decides to do on Thursday (July 27).”

During Friday’s meeting, Local 1889 Executive Board member Capt. Dennis Maag noted that union members have been working without a memorandum of understanding since the last one expired Dec. 31, 2002. That three-year agreement covered 2000, 2001 and 2002 and provided increases in base salaries for district em-ployees ranging from 15.48 percent to 19.15 percent over the three-year period.

That memorandum also increased the district’s payment for dependent insurance coverage to 100 percent from 90 percent, effective Jan. 1, 2000, and provided for increases in longevity pay — 1 percent in 2000, .5 percent in 2001 and .5 percent in 2002. Longevity pay is determined by an employee’s base salary and the number of years of service to the district.

Maag said, “Since 2002, there have been no salary or benefit increases, and last — I believe it’s last July when you put the new health care in where the dependent coverage was reduced, and I think, I think we’d be lying if we all said that we didn’t expect that … hundred percent to last all the time. I mean that was a very good package, OK? With us down now to the 70-percent dependent coverage, that seems to be a fair number when you compare other businesses and other employers as far as an amount that is paid.”

In early 2004, the Board of Directors voted to save nearly $50,000 by decreasing health-insurance benefits. But less than a week later, the decision to save the $47,000 by decreasing health-insurance benefits was reversed by the board, which voted unanimously to keep the same health-insurance plan at a 12-percent cost increase.

At that time, then-board Chairman Tom O’Driscoll said, “While we would probably review at least a modest wage increase, they (union members) were willing to for-go such benefits to maintain health-insurance coverage.”

On Friday, Maag said that increases in inflation and the cost of living from 2000 to 2005 have exceeded the benefits from the last memorandum between Local 1889 and the board.

“In running some numbers from the government, from the period of 2000 to 2005, the rate of inflation has gone up 16.4 percent. That’s from the U.S. government. This year’s inflation rate obviously cannot be determined right now,” he said, adding it’s probably in the 3 percent to 4 percent range. “The cost of living as calculated by the Social Security Administration during that period of time went up 16.1 percent.

“So if you consider that, the raises that we received in 2000 through 2002, if you calculate those through 2006, it’s still 15 percent since 2000 is the way I look at it,” Maag continued, adding that inflation and the increase in the cost of leaving have exceeded that.

“So I think it’s fair to say that the value of the salaries that we’re taking home today is actually less than what it was probably in 1999. If you look at the health-care coverage, you go back to actually 1997 is when the rate was increased to 70 percent, and so we’re going to bring the health-care dependent coverage back to a rate that we received back in 1997.”

During late 2002, Maag noted the union rejected a proposed salary increase and withdrew a proposal for an additional vacation pick day out of concern for the fiscal stability of the district.

“… With the health care going back to the coverage we were getting roughly in ’97 and the inflation rates have gone up, I think we’d all like to see the current health care stay at the 70-percent rate,” he said, noting that besides the 30-percent reduction in dependent coverage, insurance plans changed twice and co-payments were increased.

“Even though it’s 30 percent, there’s an additional out-of-pocket expense that’s been passed on to the membership as well,” Maag said. “So I think I speak on behalf of the members of the local that as far as the health care is concerned, given the changes that were made last year, it would be our proposal that if possible, we stay at the current rate of 70 percent based on those numbers.”

Maag later noted that until district voters approved Proposition S — a 33-cent tax-rate increase — in November 2004, the last voter-approved tax-rate increase was in 1989. The board voted to increase the district’s tax rate by six cents in 1993 and to increase the pension-fund levy by two cents in 1998.

On June 28, the board voted unanimously to accept the district’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the fiscal year that ended Dec. 31.

The report states a decision to voluntarily roll back the district’s tax rate by levying only four cents of the voter-approved 33-cent tax-rate increase saved taxpayers $4.576 million.

“Beginning in April 2005, the current administration diligently examined the entire operations of the district and adopted innovative cost-saving policies and procedures,” the report states. “By reducing our alarm fund tax levy by four cents and then levying four cents or 13 percent of the Prop S voter-approved 33-cent tax levy in the general fund, we succeeded with no tax increase from last year.

“The four cents is earmarked for future capital outlays. As a result, the original budgeted tax-rate levy of $1.19 was amended drastically to reflect the major voluntary reduction in the property-tax levy to 86 cents,” the report states.

Maag later discussed how the district increased the level of service it provides from 1989 to today.

“Between that time and when Prop S was run, the district also placed a fourth ambulance in service, a fifth ambulance and increased firefighting and administrative positions, OK? So basically what was done was the staffing levels and the services were increased to the taxpayer, but it was done so without increasing the tax rate to compensate for the increased level of service and basically, surplus funds in the various accounts were used to accommodate that. As those funds were utilized, obviously these surpluses were spent down. They were not replenished, and we got to a point in time where the increased cost of doing business, if you will, that’s where we got into the problem as far as trying to continue to operate at that particular level without a tax issue, OK?”

Noting that personnel costs account for the majority of district expenditures, he said, “… If we get to a point where we’re trying to maintain the current level of service, I think it’s important to look at the fact there have been, based on the numbers I gave you previously going back to 2000-2002, the employees are back at a rate where they were prior to 2000, and if we can look at maintaining that staffing level and perhaps if it’s necessary for additional funds, to utilize not all, but possibly look at utilizing part of the Proposition S monies. That is what that was there for — was to maintain current staffing levels and ac-commodate some of the additional equipment, buildings, things along those lines there.

“Basically, correcting what was done previously. If we’re going to — I know there’s talk of a sixth ambulance. I think personally as a resident and a taxpayer, before we would increase the level of service — it costs money to do that, OK — and we would go to the taxpayers and say: This is what we want to do. This is what it’s going to cost. This is how it’s going to benefit you. And then you would ask them to vote. Do you want to pay for that? … Say you want a sixth ambulance. It’s going to reduce your response times from an average of seven minutes to five minutes, and if the people vote for it, then you put the truck in service. And if they don’t, then you can either try and find other methods of doing so or if you can’t accommodate it with your current level of taxation, then you don’t do it.

“And going back on the fourth and fifth ambulance and the additional emergency personnel that were put on, the people, again, they weren’t asked for that, and if we do have to utilize Prop S, some of those funds to compensate for that, I think it would be easier to maintain the level of services …,” he said.