Show-cause motion filed by Local 1889 against Mehlville fire board overruled by judge

Judge cites lack of jurisdiction in previous motion by district

By MIKE ANTHONY

A motion by Mehlville Fire Protection District union employees seeking a court order to show cause why members of the district’s Board of Directors should not be held in contempt was overruled last week.

St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Thea A. Sherry overruled the union’s motion on Sept. 3. Her order states, “… At this time, plaintiffs’ motion is overruled on jurisdictional grounds as this matter is still pending before the Court of Appeals.”

Union employees 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 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 excludes employees hired after March 31, 2006.

John Goffstein, an attorney representing Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, filed the Aug. 26 motion, which sought “to enforce the court’s judgment and for the defendants to be ordered to show cause why they should not be held in contempt of court.”

Noting that Sherry’s Dec. 24 order “required that the defined-benefit plan remain in full force and effect until the completion of the appellate process,” Local 1889’s motion alleged that the Board of Directors “… has already exhibited its intention not to collect the funds to maintain the defined-benefit plan, contrary to the court’s order under date of Dec. 24, 2007.”

During an interview with the Call last month about the district’s proposed fiscal 2009 tax rate, Chairman Aaron Hilmer discussed the board’s intention to reduce the pension-fund tax rate to 2 cents per $100 of assessed valuation from 7.6 cents.

Local 1889’s motion cites a quote from Hilmer that was published in the Aug. 21 issue of the Call: “We’re only going to take enough to fund the people under our current defined-contribution program that we voted to implement on 3/31 of ’06, and, in my opinion, that’s the only plan we’ll ever fund in the future.”

In a memorandum in support of the union’s motion, Goffstein wrote that Hilmer’s remark “is not only a repudiation of the MFPD’s legal and fiduciary obligations under the defined-benefit plan, but also a repudiation of the inherent powers of this court to enforce its own judgment.”

The union’s motion also stated, “… Plaintiffs pray for an order from this court to compel the defendants to fulfill their fiduciary obligations under law to fund the earned and accrued benefits under the defined-benefit plan while it remains in full force and effect or to appear in this court … to state why they should not be held in contempt for their refusal to maintain and fund the benefit plan which remains in full force and effect.”

Mathew Hoffman, legal counsel for the fire district, contended in a motion to dismiss Local 1889’s motion that Sherry lacked jurisdiction.

He cited a previous ruling Sherry had issued on a motion for clarification filed by the district after an employee — Tim White, a firefighter/emergency medical technician who had resigned his membership in Local 1889 — asked to participate in the defined-contribution plan.

“Previously, defendants filed a motion for clarification with regard to the desire of a plan participant, represented by counsel, to enter the defined-contribution plan and this court issued a denial on jurisdictional grounds dated April 28 …,” Hoffman’s motion stated.

In his motion, Hoffman also stated, “No changes have been made to the pension plan pursuant to this court’s order and employees have continued to retire under the defined-benefit plan of the district …”

Hoffman’s motion further contended, “The Board of Directors of the Mehlville Fire Protection District did not violate the judgment issued by this court on Dec. 24, 2007 … Plaintiffs have not offered any sufficient evidence that this court’s order has been violated.”

Regarding Sherry’s ruling, Hoffman told the Call, “I agree with the ruling of Judge Sherry that jurisdiction is currently with the Missouri Court of Appeals and it is consistent with prior rulings. It is our position that the Board of Directors is not only empowered by state statute to set the relevant tax rates, it is their duty as elected officials of the district.”

Goffstein did not return a telephone call seeking comment on Sherry’s ruling.

Local 1889 President Bob Strinni told the Call that he questioned how Sherry could rule the pension plan “is in full force and effect.” 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.

“… She did that with Tim White. When Tim White wanted his money, she said she didn’t have jurisdiction,” Strinni said of the judge’s ruling. “But how can she rule that our pension plan is in full force and effect and then not rule that the funding should be in full force and effect because ultimately … this could be a moot point. It could not be, depending on who wins.

“You would think that she would want enough money in available funds there to fix the problem …,” he added.

Though the Board of Directors — Hilmer, Treasurer Bonnie Stegman and Secretary Ed Ryan — originally had planned to set the fiscal 2009 pension-fund tax rate at 2 cents, members decided to levy an additional cent for the pension fund when they voted unanimously Aug. 28 to set the district’s blended tax rate at 56.3 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

The fiscal 2009 tax rate for the pension fund is 3 cents — 4.6 cents less than the current tax rate of 7.6 cents per $100.

“We decided to take 50-percent more than we had advertised there — roughly $261,000. The reason we did that is because in the past few weeks as I’ve been feverishly working to try to bring a resolution to all their lawsuits, I encountered many employees who were interested in moving forward in a positive and fair manner. So I felt that perhaps if one day they become the majority, we’ll have something to work with them,” Hilmer previously told the Call.

The fiscal 2009 tax rate of 56.3 cents per $100 is 4.6 cents less than the current rate of 60.9 cents and roughly 46.45 percent less than the legal maximum of $1.052 the board could levy.