Mehlville fire district ‘poster child’ for workers’ comp reform

Board discusses Sunshine Law policy, public comment policy


The Mehlville Fire Protection District has become the “poster child” for workers’ compensation reform, a consultant told the Board of Directors last week.

Barbara Cullen of Medical Services Management Inc. told the Board of Directors May 10 that reforms to the district’s workers’ compensation program have made Mehlville “the poster child on how to do it right.”

The Board of Directors voted 2-1 in November 2005 to hire Cullen to assist the district in reducing workers’ compensation costs and implementing a fit-for-duty policy.

Board Chairman Aaron Hilmer and board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman voted to hire Cullen while then-Secretary Dan Ottoline Sr. was opposed. Ottoline did not seek re-election.

In the April election, Ed Ryan defeated write-in candidate Dennis Skelton and now serves as board secretary.

Hilmer and Stegman were elected to the board in April 2005 after running a reform campaign in which they pledged to eliminate fiscal waste and roll back a 33-cent tax-rate increase, Proposition S, that voters had approved in November 2004. The two supported Ryan in April.

When the board voted to hire Cullen in late 2005, Hilmer noted that the district’s premiums for workers’ compensation had increased by more than $560,000 since 2000 — to $892,616 from $332,311.

At last week’s meeting, Hilmer went even further back, noting in 1995, Larry House, then-chairman of the Missouri Fire and Ambulance Districts’ Insurance Trust, called MoFAD, “referenced the high claims for the Mehlville Fire District and talked about canceling the district’s policy even 12 years ago because of the excessive usage. Things slowed down a little bit from there, but as you can see from the chart that (District Clerk) Carla (Juelfs) put together here, the claims really went on a wild ride.

“From 2000 to 2005, we averaged $663,000 a year in claims and obviously our premiums were adversely affected. In 2004 while the district was selling an unneeded tax hike, they projected that by 2009, we would be accruing $1.89 million a year of work-comp premiums, an annual 20-percent increase,” he said.

When Hilmer and Stegman took office in 2005, the district’s workers’ compensation premiums were $885,000.

“Since then, the premiums have dropped by $260,000 to $625,000 last year …,” Hilmer said, later noting the projected premium for next year is roughly $613,000.

Shortly after hiring Cullen, the board voted 2-1 with Ottoline opposed to adopt a new workers’ compensation policy.

“… Under the old policy when someone was put on work comp, the district was, in effect, then giving them money on top of what work comp was paying them, so they really were making more money on work comp than when they were at work. We could see how that created some problems. We did away with that. I think that probably was the big monetary change,” Hilmer said.

“Some of the interesting numbers that have happened since those changes (are) in 2004, there were 52 claims for people making work-comp claims. By 2006, that number is almost halved to 28. And actually, our numbers only go back to 1990. But last year’s was the lowest claim number since 1990 and could be many years before that,” he added.

Furthermore, Hilmer noted that the district had $749,000 in workers’ compensation claims in 2004. So far this year, the district has incurred $26,000 in claims.

Hilmer said, “… If that trend would hold, you can see we’re going to be …”

Cullen interjected, “Poster children.”

“Yes, we are. It will be good and it will help us with the modification factor …,” Hilmer said, referring to an adjustment MoFAD makes to a district’s premium based on whether a district has higher or lower losses compared to other districts.

He also asked Cullen, “… Is there anything else we could do? Are there any other steps we could take from here or …”

Cullen said, “No. I think you’ve done a wonderful job — truly — and really some of the other districts are being told about the changes you’ve put in place and the difference in your outcomes. And you are the poster child. Your name’s been thrown around a lot, which is good. It’s a good thing. I think you have done a wonderful job …”

Hilmer later said, “I think one of the other interesting numbers, we could talk about just the financial impact of our claims or you could talk about our premiums, and I know I touched on that in 2004 it was projected to be $1.89 million. We just got a projection from MoFAD for next year and they’re projecting roughly around $600,000. So we’re only a year away from their $2 million premium and we’re at a third of what they were talking about previously. I guess it would be hard to quantify, Barb, but there’s a lot of things where you get rid of the excesses, you get rid of the waste and that’s just not reflected in your costs of medical claims.

“It’s also what we’re not seeing is the overtime that we need to staff for that, and also the ripple effect where if someone knows that people are getting away with these things, well, they’re all going to jump on board also. So I think a lot of these are big structural changes and while work comp isn’t something where you necessarily see it overnight, your changes, because they’re looking backward so much.”

Cullen said, “… Well, your statistics there address that and I think it’s only going to get better, and as I said, there are other districts that talk about Mehlville is the poster child on how to do it right.”

During an interview with the Call, Hilmer credited Chief Jim Silvernail and Assistant Chief Steve Mossotti for their efforts in reducing workers’ compensation costs.

“… I think their no-nonsense approach to doing things has stopped all the frivolous claims,” he said.

Hilmer also said he appreciated Cullen’s comments.

“That’s good, but I also think we need to look at how. We didn’t do anything I think out of the ordinary except common sense, just like average people when they sit around their kitchen table and work on their budget, that’s what we did here,” he said. “We said: ‘You shouldn’t make more money when you’re on work comp than when you’re working.’ And we tightened the rules a little bit. I think the biggest thing is in 2004 they projected $1.9 million in premiums. We’re going to be at $613,000 (next year).

“What’s scary is these are the kind of projections they’re throwing on people to get tax increases and I’m afraid the fire district isn’t the only entity who has been doing these kind of things,” Hilmer added.

In other business May 10, the board discussed adopting a policy regarding information requests made under the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Act, also called the Sunshine Law, but took no action. Board members also discussed revising the district’s public-comment policy for board meetings, but took no action.

Regarding the proposed Sunshine Law policy, Stegman said, “Obviously, you should have a policy that says who is your custodian of records and who that person is, when they’re available, what the process is to request records under the Sunshine Law, and so since we didn’t have anything formalized that we thought that we should go ahead and put something together.

“So my recommendation is and you can all look at this and maybe next meeting we can decide if we want to pass this resolution or whatever … We definitely need to let people know who our custodian of records is and that would be Carla (Juelfs) and how you would go about getting those, make sure that we’re following the Sunshine Law, any fees that would be charged for those records and that would again be written exactly as the Sunshine Law allows for fees. It does and it has very strict guidelines and we would follow those guidelines …,” she added.

Regarding revising the public-comment policy, Hilmer said, “I was reviewing some public-comment policies from the local school districts as I was looking over ours and what I noticed pretty uniform throughout them all and I think it would be really good if we would adopt this at the next meeting also is something — what the school districts really brought up I think is a good point is to you limit public comment to the topics on the agenda because that really helps us deal with things in an expedient, more efficient manner … If this is what the board is focusing on, well, that’s what the discussion’s going to be about, not just about whatever. So I will get you that drafted up and then we could take of that at the next meeting also …”