St. Louis reverses firefighter pension change

ST. LOUIS — Aldermen on Friday overrode a veto from Mayor Tishaura O. Jones and reversed a change to the firefighter pension system adopted years ago to rein in runaway costs.

The board’s decision, which requires corresponding approval from state lawmakers, would return supervision of all firefighter pensions to a board led by firefighters, as it was for many years before the 2012 reforms. That board would not be able to increase benefits without aldermanic assent and actuarial cost studies. But it would be in charge of hiring the actuaries to do those studies, and could take a more aggressive stance in pushing for new benefits.

Alderman Bret Narayan, who sponsored the bill, called it a “victory for working people.”

Jones responded by announcing an indefinite hiring freeze on all positions save for first responders, 911 dispatchers and workers in the water, trash, airport and divisions. She cited the uncertain cost of the bill and looming legislation in the statehouse that could slash revenue from the city’s income tax.

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“Our budget for (fiscal year 2025) is going to be very conservative,” she added. 

The decision marked a long-sought victory for firefighters, who form one of the city’s most influential unions.

For 50 years, they got most anything they wanted when it came to their pension system. Mayors and aldermen approved extra retiree bonuses, funeral subsidies and sick-leave buybacks worth tens of thousands of dollars per retiree. Firefighters were allowed to retire but continue working, drawing salaries and pensions at the same time.

That all stalled after the Great Recession. Stock losses hit the system hard, and city taxpayers had to pitch in tens of millions of dollars per year to bail it out. City officials eventually said they couldn’t afford it anymore.

Officials fought the union for months and eventually passed a suite of changes creating a new system with slimmer benefits for younger firefighters and a new oversight board led by City Hall appointees. City leaders cheered as pension costs fell.

But firefighters have spent the past few years trying to ratchet back the changes. They fell short twice, including last year, when aldermen were one vote short overriding Jones’ veto of a similar plan.

This year, however, supporters managed to find the last vote. Only aldermen Shane Cohn, of Dutchtown, Michael Browning, of Forest Park Southeast, and Sharon Tyus, of Kingsway East, voted to sustain the veto. Alderwoman Laura Keys, of the O’Fallon neighborhood, was absent. 

After the meeting, Narayan and Aldermanic President Megan Green brushed off concerns about the plan leading to runaway costs, stressing that any increases in pension benefits will require separate bills. Narayan said that if aldermen start making irresponsible decisions, residents will vote them out.

They also criticized Jones’ hiring freeze as an overreaction. They pointed out that city coffers have been bolstered by federal pandemic aid, the NFL Rams relocation settlement, and ironically, budget surpluses fueled by the many vacancies in the city workforce. 

The city, Narayan said, should be spending that money to attract and retain more employees, including firefighters — though their department is better staffed than most.

Green said the hiring freeze would do the opposite.

“I think it is incredibly premature to make this type of mandate and that at the end of the day, it will only succeed at diminishing city services,” she said.

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View life in St. Louis through the Post-Dispatch photographers’ lenses. Edited by Jenna Jones.

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