Some time (very) soon, the St. Louis Fire Department is going to lose firefighters. The open question is how many.
The main problem is the exploding cost of pensions. Pensions now take up 30 percent of the money spent on the fire department. And that percentage will be increasing because pension costs are expected to go up by another $8 million next year.
The skyrocketing cost of pensions will force two civic conversations.
The first conversation is about how we will continue to provide a good pension that firefighters deserve without bankrupting the City or destroying the department.
The second is about how we will deliver fire services.
We cannot afford what we used to be able to afford. So, even if we bring down our pension costs, the department will still have to address operating inefficiencies, the decreasing incidence of actual fires in the City, and the competing public safety demands posed by law and code enforcement.
I am not the only decision-maker whose opinions will set the new direction(s). The fire chief will have to study staffing levels and response times. The fire union will have to decide whether it wants to join us to identify and implement solutions. The Missouri General Assembly will have to address pension reform. The Board of Estimate & Apportionment and the Board of Aldermen will have to resolve conflicting priorities, while preserving public safety. And taxpayers will likely have the final say in an April election about retaining the earnings tax.
My own goals are: (1) an efficient and correctly deployed fire service; (2) a fair pension system, with costs that will not bankrupt the City; (3) more funds for law and code enforcement; and (4) preservation of the earnings tax until an acceptable alternative can be identified and implemented.
What are yours?