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Political fight over firefighter pensions continues

(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)

The political fight raging over Mayor Francis Slay’s efforts to reform the pension system for St. Louis city firefighters continued at City Hall Friday.

The dispute started last week when board president Lewis Reed refused to assign the bills to a committee. Reed contends the board's rules give him until next Friday, Feb. 25, to make a decision.

Not everyone shares his opinion. And when Ald. Craig Schmid, who is sponsoring the bills in question, made a motion to get them placed in his Public Employees committee, Reed gaveled him down.

"If you want to help get the board bill assigned faster, hop over to the mayor's office and ask him to share with me the quarter-million dollar legal  opinion he has on it so I don't have to do the research on it myself," Reed said.

In the current system, which has been in place since 1960, the city must get permission from the state to make changes to pension benefits for firefighters. The mayor's proposed legislation would opt the city out of that system, and then make changes to benefit levels, including reduced disability payments for firefighters who can work a second job, and a minimum retirement age for new hires. The firefighters' union says the city cannot opt out of the system and is threatening to sue if the legislation passes.

The union has already filed one suit, looking to prevent any further committee action on the bills until they are officially sent to a committee. It was prompted by a hearing Schmid convened on Monday, despite questions about his authority to do so.

On the floor of the Board of Aldermen today, Ald. Steven Conway defended his colleagues' actions.

"We review things without it necessarily being in front of us by ordinance," Conway said, pointing to several agenda items for this week, including a hearing on minority hiring and one on changing the names of neighborhoods. "It's not only important to do, but it's our responsibility as chairman, and that's within the purview of any chairman down at the Board of Aldermen."

Also Friday, the trustees that oversee the department's pensions released the city's required contribution into the Firemen's Retirement System for fiscal year 2013. Their number - $21.2 million - is well below the $31.4 million the city had projected it would need to contribute, and is actually below what the city contributed this fiscal year.

The union said in a statement that "this news should relieve some of the urgency being exhibited by the Mayor's office" to get the bills passed.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.