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Firefighters pursue pension plan changes in negotiations

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

Firefighters in the city of Springfield are dissatisfied with the city's proposal to increase their wages, but not alter their pension plan, for the coming fiscal year.

Mike Peltz and several other members of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Springfield Local 152, expressed concerns at a labor-media breakfast May 5, encouraging Springfield residents to discuss the proposal with their City Council representatives.

Because Missouri is not a collective- bargaining state there is currently no collective-bargaining law in place the unions do not have contracts with the city, but rather have agreements. It is also illegal for police and firefighters to strike in the state, but Peltz said the fire fighters would have no intention of striking, even if they were able.

"We do not intend to put the public in jeopardy. It's our job to be there to save lives, and that's what we want to do," Peltz said.

The city's proposal would result in a 3 percent pay increase for the firefighters, said City Manager Tom Finnie. Springfield's city administration sets a goal for its wages to be competitive as compared to 20 cities in the nation.

"The goal is to be in the middle third of those other municipalities. Right now, we're at the bottom of that third," Finnie said.

If the city does not increase pay for the firefighters this year, it will have to offer a substantial increase next year to keep the pay competitive, Finnie said.

Limited funds for pay and benefits increases have led city management to offer only a pay increase this year.

"We couldn't do a pay increase and a benefits increase," Finnie said.

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, Finnie said.

Peltz said the lack of a contract makes it difficult for the union to negotiate and "know where we stand."

"There are no negotiations, really. We have had meetings. We started those in December, and there was nothing offered until April," Peltz said.

The top two priorities for both the firefighters and the police have been the pension and getting collective bargaining in the state of Missouri. A bill to do so failed this session, Peltz said, but the unions will continue to try for a collective-bargaining law.

The union is proposing an equivalent pay increase that would also increase the pension benefits to the desired level for the firefighters. Though Finnie said the city considers whatever proposal is brought, he said it is not possible to have the equivalent increase in pay and also increase the pension plan's benefits within the limits of the funds allowed.

"There is no way we can have both, and we've got to have a pay increase," Finnie said.

Finnie also said that if the firefighters are concerned about their retirement, they may invest some of the money from their pay increase in the city's deferred compensation program.

"If they put extra money into the deferred account, they can use it at any time," Finnie said.

Peltz said the firefighters' concern for a better pension plan was in part because of the average life expectancy for a firefighter, which he said is 56.

The firefighters are encouraging Springfield residents to call their councilman or councilwoman before May 26, when the proposal is set for a first reading.

"Our only alternative now is to turn to the citizens. The citizens are truly our boss, anyway; we're out there to do what they need us to do. Now we're asking for them to look at our side of things and talk to their council representative," Peltz said.

The pay increase would become effective in October. Finnie said the city would like to have the proposal in effect by the end of the fiscal year.

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