September 14, 2005 - By LAURA UHLMANSIEK
Three consulting firms will recommend changes to the Mehlville Fire Protection District's pension fund, according to Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer.
During a meeting of the Tesson Ferry Township Republican Club last week, Hilmer said the consulting firms are reviewing the district's pension fund.
The three firms will present the district's Pension Committee and Board of Directors with options to change the pension fund, including possibly changing it from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan, Hilmer said.
"By doing that we'll be doing three things," Hilmer said. "First of all, we'll be able to absolve ourselves of our $6 million shortfall, by nipping the problem in the bud early. Second of all, we're going to give the employees more choices and more control over their investment and most importantly we're going to remove ourselves of any future liability under the pension plan."
The Republican Club, which had supported Hilmer and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman in their election campaign last spring, had asked the two new board members to discuss their work with the fire district.
During their presentations Sept. 8, Hilmer and Stegman reviewed what they had focused on since the April 5 election.
They explained that they had revised the district's substance abuse policy, cut sick leave, personal days and vacation time, and most recently hired eight new employees who will be able to work as both firefighters and paramedics to provide advanced life support on the district's pumpers.
Hilmer also said that the district's pension plan is in trouble and representatives of the three consulting firms will be present at the Monday, Sept. 26, Pension Committee meeting.
He told the Call that each firm will receive 30 minutes to present an opinion about the state of the pension plan and offer recommendations.
The Board of Directors currently is under a preliminary injunction that prohibits the enactment of previously proposed changes to the district's disability plan.
At the June 20 meeting, the board voted 2-1, with Secretary Dan Ottoline opposed, to approve an amendment to remove the original disability benefits from the pension plan for injuries that occurred after July 1. Employees then would be covered by the Standard Insurance plan, which extended around-the-clock coverage to employees, but reduced the maximum benefit payments by 15 percent.
In response, Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters filed a lawsuit against the board, asking the court to prohibit the board from implementing a disability benefit contract with Standard Insurance and eliminating current disability benefits from the district's pension plan.
Circuit Judge Barbara Ann Crancer ruled that the board had not followed the proper procedures to change retirement benefits outlined in state law and the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA. State law requires that an actuarial study on any "substantial proposed change" must be filed with the state and the proposed change must be made available to the public for 45 days before the board can adopt the change.
Since then, the district has filed an actuarial study and Hilmer told the Call that the 45 days end Sept. 18. He also said he hopes to have the injunction removed so that the board may make the firm's recommended changes to the pension plan.
John Goffstein, an attorney representing Local 1889, previously told the Call that even without the injunction, the board should not be able to make any changes because it still would violate its fiduciary responsibility as outlined in ERISA.
Crancer also ruled that the Board of Directors did not violate the state's Meet and Confer Law or the Open Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law, as alleged in the lawsuit filed by Local 1889.
After his presentation, Hilmer was asked about Mehlville Chief Jim Silvernail's guilty plea last week to two counts of misdemeanor criminal harassment against his former employer, a board member at Metro West Fire Protection District. Silvernail was placed on probation for two years.
Hilmer was asked if the Board of Directors would hire firefighters and paramedics who were on probation.
"Well, I don't know because it wouldn't show up on their criminal record because it's a misdemeanor, so we would have no way of knowing," Hilmer said.
During her presentation, Stegman discussed the Board of Directors' recent decision to hire eight firefighter/paramedics who will help convert the district's basic life support pumpers into advanced life support pumpers.
"That has been a goal of mine ... Most of our calls are EMS, and I think we need to highlight that group and give them the support that they need to get them out into the community,'' she said.
Residents also asked Stegman about her recent experience with St. Anthony's Medical Center and said they were concerned about the quality of care they would receive if they needed to use the district's services.
As previously reported by the Call, Stegman, a St. Anthony's employee, said hospital officials demanded that she choose between her position on the fire district board or her job because several paramedics told hospital employees that if she continued to work there, paramedics would take fewer patients to the hospital, refuse to take continuing education classes there and would picket outside St. Anthony's.
Much to her surprise, Stegman was offered — and accepted — a new job that shifted her responsibilities so that she no longer teaches continuing education classes for paramedics, but instead focuses on education for physicians and nurses at the hospital.
"A majority of the paramedics and firefighters truly have your best interests at heart," Stegman told club members. "They are very good. They're hard working. They do their continuing education. They go above and beyond what they need to do.
"Unfortunately, what a few bad apples do, all that is reflected on the good people. So, please be aware that the majority of the district are very good people. They would do nothing to harm you. They would be there in a heartbeat, and they would treat you like one of their own family members,'' Stegman added.
Several club members offered encouragement to Stegman and Hilmer.
"The members of our club feel that they are doing a great job with the administration of the Mehlville Fire Protection District, and we wanted to show them their support and to let them know that they have the support of the community," Tesson Ferry Township Republican Club President John Judd said.