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Firefighters, city continue raise, benefit negotiations

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

Firefighters and police officers say they just want a better pension program; city officials say a pay raise has to come first. Right now, a council bill, set for second reading at council's June 22 meeting, calls for the pay raise.

"We at the city have tried to keep our pay and bonuses competitive. We use a survey of 20 cities in the Midwest comparable to our size, and in addition to that, we compare our salaries and benefits to five cities in Missouri and five not-for-profit companies in Springfield," said Tom Finnie, city manager, at the June 8 City Council meeting.

The goal is to keep salaries for city employees in the middle third of that survey; right now, police and firefighters are at the bottom of that middle third, Finnie said. A pay increase is needed to keep the salaries from slipping even further behind, he added.

The ordinance now proposes a 3 percent pay increase for firefighters, effective Oct. 1. Mike Peltz, president of the International Association of Firefighters, Springfield Local 152, said the plan the group has outlined will cost the city the same, but allow the firefighters to get an increase in their pension benefit.

The union's plan is for the firefighters to receive a 1.25 percent pay raise in July and a change in their pension benefit beginning Jan. 1, 1999. The firefighters' current pension program allows a firefighter to retire after 28 years of service, receiving 70 percent of pay thereafter with a 3 percent cost-of-living index. The union is asking for retirement at 25 years with 75 percent of pay and the 3 percent cost-of-living index.

The city and the union have been in negotiations for several months over the proposal, but since Missouri is not a collective bargaining state, the city does not have to bargain with the unions, said Jim Kabell, secretary/treasurer of the local Teamsters chapter.

"The lack of a collective bargaining law in the state means that the city has no obligation to come to the table and bargain in good faith," Kabell said.

The firefighters and police officers cannot strike, under Missouri law, and that may or may not be changed by a collective bargaining law, Kabell said.

"Different states write their laws differently. In some states, it's illegal for any public worker to strike; in some it is only illegal for police and fire officials to strike," Kabell said.

Collective bargaining would have made it more likely that the firefighters and police would get an increased pension benefit, Kabell said.

"The real issue is that their proposal is not going to cost the city more money, so what is the problem? In most situations in the private sector, if you stay within the prescribed spending limits, then you can pretty much bargain for what you want," Kabell said.

The proposed ordinance contains no language about a change to the firefighters' and police pension programs. This is the second year the two groups have asked for a change to their pension benefit, Peltz said.

Both the firefighters' union and the Springfield Police Officers Association circulated letters to the citizens of Springfield prior to the June 8 meeting, asking for support of a change in their pension benefit.

One of the assertions the firefighters have made is that the average firefighter is expected to live to be only 56 years old. City Council and Finnie have asked for the source of that information, which Peltz provided to council members following the June 8 meeting.

The source is cited as the International Association of Fire Fighters Hazardous Material Training Squad, a 24-hour training class offered between November 1997 and January 1998.

The proposed ordinance also provides for a salary increase for other city employees. A 1 percent increase in salary is proposed for those city employees not included in the fire and police 3 percent increase, Finnie said. Those employees are also receiving a benefits increase.

They will now be eligible for an "80 and out" retirement benefit, meaning that when an employee's age and number of years of service total 80, that employee can retire with an "unreduced retirement benefit," according to the proposed ordinance.

This is one of the options available to the city under the Missouri Local Government Employees Retirement System (LAGERS) the city had adopted previously, Finnie said.

"This is the program we've adopted for all employees except the police and fire, who have their own retirement system," Finnie said.

The standard retirement benefit for other city employees is that the employee can retire at age 60 with 30 years of service. The percentage of salary an employee receives in retirement is figured by multiplying the employee's years of service by a multiplier, which is 1.5 in the case of the LAGERS employees, Finnie said. The multiplier for police and fire is 2.5, and their proposal calls for an increase in that multiplier to three, which would place theirs at double the LAGERS employees', Finnie added.

The "80 and out" benefit change for other city employees is a sticking point for the police and firefighters, who say it is unfair to create a more beneficial retirement benefit for some of the city employees without considering their request.

"We think our proposal is a good one for everyone involved, and it will not cost a penny more than the pay raise," Peltz said.

Finnie said the "80 and out" benefit can be used "by only a very small number of people." The benefit cannot be used after an employee turns 60. If an employee joined the city as a full-time employee at age 18, to reach the combined years of service and age of 80, he or she would have to work until the age of 49.

The minimum age of hire for a firefighter is 18, and under the firefighters' current pension plan, full retirement benefits would be available to an individual who joined the firefighters at 18 when he or she turned 46, after 28 years of service, and receive 70 percent of his or her salary. The current pension benefit allows other city employees to retire with a 42 percent pension after 28 years of service.

The ordinance will likely be voted on June 22, Councilman Gary Gibson said.

PHOTO CAPTION:

Bob Smith, a Springfield firefighter, demonstrates the defibrillator equipment on a fire truck.[[In-content Ad]]

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