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St. Louis Firefighters Win Court Fight Over Residency

Mayor Francis Slay is proposing major changes to the firefighter's pension system that could reduce benefits for new hires.
(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)
Mayor Francis Slay is proposing major changes to the firefighter's pension system that could reduce benefits for new hires.

Updated at 4:30 p.m. with comments from Jeff Rainford.

St. Louis city firefighters who have served at least seven years with the department will be able to move outside the city boundaries.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled today that the Missouri Legislature was within its rights in 2010 to pass a law overriding local residency requirements for fire departments in cities where the school district is unaccredited or provisionally accredited.

The city of St. Louis sued, arguing that the law was improperly tailored to affect only the city, that it violated the powers afforded to charter cities, and that the law was not rationally related to a government interest. 

Jeff Rainford, the chief of staff to Mayor Francis Slay, said his boss actually had no problem with firefighters moving out of the city. But that decision, he said, should be made by residents.

"The people of St. Louis pay the bulls, they’re the ones who depend on the fire department, it’s their charter that they live by, and these decisions should really be up to local governments. It shouldn’t be the state’s business," Rainford said, adding that it's probably better for city neighborhoods if people who are living there want to be there.

Cole County judge Jon Beetum ruled in November 2011 that the law was not a so-called "special" law. But, he agreed with the city that it violated the provision in the state constitution limiting the power of the state legislature over charter cities. Beetum also ruled that the statute was insufficiently related to education. The state and city appealed. Here's how the Supreme Court ruled:

  • Whether the statute is a special law (appealed by the city)

The court ruled that although the city of St. Louis is currently the only one in Missouri with both an unaccredited school district and a residency requirement for its firefighters, the test for a special statute is not whether others do meet the criteria, but whether others can meet that criteria. As the justices noted:

"Any fire department could adopt a residency requirement, and any school district runs the risk of becoming unaccredited or provisionally accredited. Indeed, as the State notes, it is a matter of public record that numerous Missouri public school districts are not now or have not always been fully accredited during the pendency of this case."

  • Whether the statute encroaches on St. Louis's rights as a charter city (appealed by the state)

​The state constitution says the General Assembly may not pass a law affecting "creating or fixing the powers, duties or compensation of any municipal office or employment" for charter cities. The Supreme Court ruled that residency is not a power or a duty of a firefighter, and has nothing to do with compensation, and therefore the state is free to act.

  • Whether the relaxation of the residency requirement relates to a legitimate government interest (appealed by the state)

The statute created a special class of firefighters within the department - those who had worked there for more than seven years and were thus free from the residency requirement. The thinking was that by allowing firefighters with school-aged children to move to an accredited school district, the children could receive a better education, while the city would retain experienced firefighters.

Beetum ruled that while those goals were laudable, the classification did nothing to meet those goals. The judges disagreed, first taking Beetum to task for creating a higher, unspecified standard of review, then ruling that it was "reasonably conceivable" that allowing children to attend accredited school districts would further their education. Further, the judges said,

"It is as equally plausible that allowing firefighters to relocate to an accredited school district after seven years of service may further fire protection services by encouraging firefighters to remain at their current jobs rather than leaving their departments entirely to relocate to a fully accredited school district to better provide for their children’s education." 

Judge Laura Denvier Stith authored the court's opinion. The remaining five judges concurred.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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