From an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
... the Fire Department is front and center, and the willingness of firefighters to reach an accord on a long-term budget plan will be a major factor in whether the city can achieve lasting budget stability.
That's a lot responsibility to put on one category of city employee.
But firefighter compensation is the most complicated personnel category in the budget, the most expensive per employee, the hardest to predict and the most explosive in growth.
The increase in fire pension costs this year alone, $5.9 million, represents nearly 10 percent of the department's total budget for operations.
This painful cycle of annual cuts in salary and benefits to pay for rising pension costs will continue indefinitely, unless firefighters are willing to accept changes in their pension system.Firefighters asked city officials for a proposal on controlling pension costs over the long term. That's a start. The city has agreed to produce a proposal by July 15.
Cost pressures on the pension system already are well understood. For example:
- Firefighters receive 75 percent of the average of their highest two years of salary as their pension benefit, but the annual payout gets richer based on unused sick pay accumulated over a firefighter's career.
- Firefighters are eligible a full disability pension if an injury prevents them from working as firefighters. Even if a firefighter gets another full-time job, his disability pension continues.
- Firefighters participate in a Deferred Retirement Option Program on top of their regular pension. They can start drawing pension payments even before they retire or have the accumulated amount paid in a lump sum when they retire.
Something must give. But firefighters are so politically powerful that the changes in state law needed for pension reform will happen only with their backing.
The crux of the issue isn't that firefighters have exceedingly difficult and dangerous jobs. St. Louis has a deep commitment to its fire department and the vital protection it provides.
The question is whether firefighters are willing to join police and non-uniformed city workers as first responders in St. Louis' budget battle. Are they willing to build a more stable future for the city, themselves and those to follow in their footsteps?
For now, read the entire editorial at stltoday.com