With setting of fiscal 2009 tax rate, Mehlville fire board’s offer to union off the table

Union leader says members ‘serious’ about the ‘shortfalls’


Proposals offered by the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors to union employees in an effort to settle litigation involving the district’s pension plan are off the table as the board has voted to set the district’s fiscal 2009 tax rate.

Board members — Chairman Aaron Hilmer, Treasurer Bonnie Stegman and Secretary Ed Ryan — voted unanimously in late July to approve a benefit-package proposal presented during a closed session by Assistant Chief Steve Mossotti.

During an Aug. 21 closed session, the board voted 2-1 — with Ryan opposed — to approve a motion to provide an additional 3-percent contribution to the district’s defined-contribution pension 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.

Both proposals were effective until the board set the tax rate on Aug. 28.

The original benefit-package proposal was rejected “unanimously” by union members while membership did not vote on the enhanced proposal, according to Bob Strinni, president of Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

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.

“… Negotiations have never gone like this before and Mr. Hilmer refuses to deal with the Executive Board, which is still — there’s still meet-and-confer laws …,” Strinni said Friday.

In voting unanimously last week to set the fiscal 2009 tax rate at 56.3 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, the board decided to levy an additional cent for the pension fund. 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.

The board originally had proposed to set the pension-fund tax rate at 2 cents.

“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 said.

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 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 excludes employees hired after March 31, 2006.

After rejecting the board’s original proposal, Strinni said “shortfalls” in the change of pension plans were “the biggest obstacle.”

He also said that the union had sent a counterproposal to the board, but declined to provide any specifics on Aug. 25.

Of that counterproposal, he said Friday, “… They had the Rule of 60, OK. The Rule of 60 only helped 60 people … It only helped about half the department, the Rule of 60. So we said make it 2 percent across the board to help every person to raise the percentages up for every person, not just half the department. And then the other one was to sit down with an actuary … They’re choosing to terminate the plan, so why should we get penalized? The only fair way to do this is let the actuary look at how much money each person should get …”

Asked if he believed the issue ultimately would be decided by the courts, he said, “At this point, I guess there’s no option. We had a union meeting, it was unanimous (to reject the offer). Until they start talking about the shortfalls, there’s no reason to give up this fight and they refuse to talk about the shortfalls … If you talk about the shortfalls, this thing’s over.”

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 board members have made a good-faith effort to work with Local 1889 to resolve the pension-related issues.

“I feel the board has done everything that we could to try to work with that group of people and unfortunately their leadership is just — they’ve shown they’re more interested in a war than they are in some type of fair settlement,” he said. “And so they can continue to appeal the case that they’ve lost, but, quite honestly, there were only two votes on the board for this enhanced proposal and I think that second vote only did it based on it was not going to do it after Aug. 28. The stark reality is there are no votes on the Board of Directors to give them anything more than they asked for.”

Strinni said, “I’ll say that we are open for negotiations and we have been for the last three-and-a-half years, and I think they’ve blackmailed and tried to strong-arm this local into something. I think guys — by the vote last week (to reject the original proposal) — I mean guys are serious about the shortfalls.”