Mehlville fire board votes to enhance offer to union employees to settle litigation

Union president says original proposal rejected ‘unanimously’

By MIKE ANTHONY

A split Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors voted in closed session last week to enhance a benefit-package proposal being offered to union employees in an effort to settle litigation involving the district’s pension plan.

The board voted 2-1 during the Aug. 21 closed session to approve a motion that would provide an additional 3-percent contribution to the defined-contribution plan based on gross wages for employees meeting the “60 Rule” — age plus years of service as of Jan. 1, 2008 — effective Oct. 1.

The motion also instructed Mathew Hoffman, the district’s legal counsel, to draft a settlement document incorporating that provision and the terms of the benefit-package proposal offered to union employees by the board July 29.

The enhanced proposal, according to the motion, expires today — Aug. 28 — when the board is scheduled to set the district’s fiscal 2009 tax rate.

Board Chairman Aaron Hilmer and board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman voted to approve the motion while board Secretary Ed Ryan was opposed.

Asked about the vote, Hilmer told the Call, “Mr. Ryan was opposed to it. He felt it was too generous. He then went on to remind us that we were elected as reform candidates and that we have to make those kind of changes no matter how difficult.

“Bonnie and I agreed. However, we felt that we should try one more time. We’ve been trying for three years to enact our reforms, but to allow the employees to have some input, to perhaps negotiate on some items and that we would try one more time. But we all agreed that after Aug. 28, that we’re pretty much not going to anymore if nothing happens before then.

“What really is perplexing to us is they presented us with an offer on I think roughly Jan. 17, 2008. We have come back with something that while it is not exactly the same, it’s more generous. It’s something that would cost the district more money to enact and if that’s not something we can move forward with … we’re just scratching our heads. And that’s why you can’t deal with people if you’re offering them something they had asked for and it’s not enough. We hope it is. Until the 28th, we just don’t know what’s going on and we’re hopeful we will receive that settlement offer back from them,” Hilmer said.

“But however, if we don’t, then we will proceed with what we’ve done. And that is enact our reforms that we told residents we would do when they voted for us. The reforms have been held up by a trial court and if they want to continue to try to appeal the decision they lost, well, then that’s their decision.”

But Bob Strinni, president of Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, told the Call just before press time that union members voted “unanimously” last week to reject the board’s original benefit-package proposal. He said union members have not voted on the enhanced proposal. Strinni, a firefighter, was fired by the Board of Directors in June for what Mehlville officials term a violation of the district’s anti-harassment policy.

Local 1889 last December filed a notice of appeal seeking to overturn an August 2007 ruling that upheld the board’s authority to make changes to the district’s pension plan. Local 1889’s request for a permanent injunction prohibiting the Board of Directors from changing the district’s pension plan to a defined-contribution plan from a defined-benefit plan was denied Aug. 27, 2007, 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 district’s pension plan.

But Sherry’s injunction excluded employees hired after March 31, 2006.

Among the provisions of the board’s original benefit-package proposal are:

• A 2-percent pay increase for all employees for 2009.

• All employees will receive contributions for 2008 to the defined-contribution plan based upon gross wages. Those with less than 15 years of service will 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 will receive 8 percent; 15 to 19 years, 9 percent; 20 to 24 years, 10 percent; and 25 or more years, 11 percent.

Hilmer said he met last week with Doug Weck, a member of the union’s Executive Board, in an effort to address concerns regarding the settlement proposal. That discussion led to the enhanced proposal.

“There was a concern expressed by a certain group of employees that because of the differences between a defined-benefit pension plan and a defined-contribution (plan) that we have enacted, they felt there could be a little bit of a shortfall or not so much time on their hands for their investments to grow. So this is something I spoke to Doug about and this is something we came up with that I could try to ask the board to approve. And as the vote was clear, we barely got it approved and I guarantee you there are not three — there’s not going to be two yes votes for this after Aug. 28,” he said. “The reality is, if this isn’t enough for them and we really hope it is — I’m very hopeful and optimistic, but if it’s not, there’s just no votes on the board for anything beyond this.”

Strinni said Monday morning, “The bottom line is the biggest obstacle in this whole thing — and I don’t think there’s a lot of opposition to a defined contribution — the biggest problem is the guys’ shortfalls in the switch. Our pension plan was designed to where you get the majority of your money at the end of your career. So what do I tell a guy that’s got 20 years that’s already got two-thirds of his whole career here — 66 percent of his time — and because he’s still young, he’s getting $80,000? So that’s our problem with trying to switch that over … A little 3 percent or something like a couple thousand dollars a year doesn’t make up for a guy that’s got two-thirds of his career in at Mehlville and he’s going to get a fraction of his pension.”

Union members have sent a counterproposal to Hoffman, Strinni said. He declined to disclose details of the counterproposal other than union members are requesting an actuarial study of the defined-benefit plan “to address the shortfalls.”

Of an actuarial study, he said, “It hasn’t been done in four years. I don’t know how we can terminate this pension plan when nobody really knows where it’s at …”

A public hearing on the proposed tax rate for fiscal 2009 will take place at 7 p.m. today — Aug. 28 — at the district’s headquarters, 11020 Mueller Road, Green Park.