The New York Times had a sobering story in its pages over the weekend. Across the country, municipal fire departments are cutting back, firing fire fighters, closing fire houses, using rolling brownouts, because of the bad economy and rising pension costs.
St. Louis's fire department is not immune to the trends. Pension costs now account for 30 percent of the fire department's budget. This year, the costs of the department's pensions are $6 million higher than last year's. Since most of the easiest economies have already been made, the fire department will have to reduce the over-all number of fire fighter positions, possibly even laying some off fire fighters. It is unlikely that any fire houses will be closed, and my hope that they will not be.
But, even if we get through this year without further layoffs or any closures, the problem will not disappear. The Fireman's Retirement System estimates the pensions' costs to taxpayers will go up next year by $8 million, and another $3 million per year the following two years. The changes required to the fire department's structure to sustain those increases will grow increasingly larger.
So, what will happen? Right now, we are talking to each other. But, the most necessary solutions involves actors not at the table. Pension benefits are set by the Missouri General Assembly. So far, legislators won't even consider moderate changes to protect jobs and public safety in the face of sustained fire fighter opposition, or, even, their silence.
But, the consequences to residents, businesses, and employees of continued pension cost growth are increasingly clear. The examples in the Times article are stark. We are offering to work with firefighters to identify ways to reduce pension costs to assure a comfortable retirement for them and good public safety for you. It is my hope that if we agree to sensible changes in St. Louis, Missouri legislators might be willing to pass them.