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Union launches contract talks as MFPD board seeks savings


May 04, 2005 - The Mehlville firefighters union launched contract talks last week as the fire protection district's Board of Directors scoured the budget for cost-savings plans.

At last week's meeting, the board drew the knife on holiday pay, sick leave, overtime, insurance benefits, clothing allowances and paid relief for the union president.

Nothing got cut, but board Chairman Aaron Hilmer gave the union until May 16 to negotiate a deal with new Chief James Silvernail and come back to the board.

Hilmer and board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman — running mates in the April election — repeatedly have expressed their desire to save tax dollars by trimming the perks and benefits from the union's Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, which is like a working contract.

Mehlville Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters are working under an MOU that expired Dec. 31, 2002, and Hilmer and Stegman want it updated.

"I don't know if you're planning on making a decision on this, taking an action on this tonight, but I would request that we have the opportunity to discuss it with the chief," Local 1889 President Chris Francis said at the April 25 meeting.

Hilmer granted the request, set the May 16 deadline and made his feelings clear on the existing MOU.

"Currently under the existing MOU, the district is paying for up to 12 hours a month to paid relief for the union president to conduct union business," he said. "I don't think the taxpayers should be paying the 12 hours a month. If the union can carry their own business, you can provide your own paid relief for that."

"I will not use any of that paid relief until we have discussed it with the chief," Francis said.

Regarding double overtime pay, "I think time-and-a-half is typically what's given," Stegman said. "Double time seems excessive to me, especially when we have a tight budget."

"What are your thoughts about moving this down to time-and-a-half or 1.68 times the salary?" Hilmer asked.

"Without being able to present this to my members, I could not give you an either-way on it, but again, it would be something that we would be able to discuss in negotiations and be allowed to take it back to my members to vote on something like that," Francis said.

"Rather than discussing any more of these items, that again are all on the memorandum, just allow us to meet with the chief," he said. "The chief, I'm sure, will keep you updated on how negotiations are proceeding and hopefully, it may not even take that long."

Some expenses won't affect the district's budget immediately — clothing allowances aren't paid until June and holiday pay won't have an impact for seven months, Hilmer said, giving the union until May 16 to negotiate. But he did want to give his opinion on one other matter — em-ployee health insurance. The district pays more than $11,000 per employee each year on health insurance, in-cluding 100 percent dependent coverage.

"I would like to, not have an analysis done, but as we look around at other public employees, be it our school teachers in the Mehlville School District, the Lindbergh School District, be it St. Louis County cops, be it St. Louis County employees, I want to look at their health insurance plans," Hilmer said. "I want to see how they measure up compared to the Mehlville Fire Protection District. I have a hard time seeing why there should be different standards for different levels of public safety employees, and not just for the 24-hour personnel but also for the employees in the office. Hopefully by next week I will be able to bring the averages, the means of these three entities I talked about."

Francis responded, "That is also a negotiated benefit. That would more than likely be discussed with the chief and his staff when we discuss those things. I welcome your input to the chief as to what you feel should be done with it, but at least give us the opportunity to meet with the chief and discuss those things and again hopefully be able to come back with something on (May) 16."

Meanwhile, board Secretary Dan Ottoline, who has butted heads with Hilmer and Stegman several times in just the first two meetings of the new board, said he's being left in the dark.

"Mr. Chairman, I have a problem," Ottoline said. "You and Bonnie I'm sure have gone over these things and checked what you want, and you, by your statements, 'I will tell the chief. I will tell.' I think I have the courtesy to know what the hell is going on ... I'm not the bastard child up here, at least I don't think I am, but you're sure treating my like one ...

"In the past, the chief and his committee have sat down and nailed out what they want, they bring it to the board," he said. "You by your own statement, you told the chief what you want — what you want, not what the board wants ... I think you owe me the courtesy to know what you want. I would like to have them ahead of time so I can digest them a little, rather than hit me point blank here tonight. I would like to know what your thoughts are first."

Stegman said, "Obviously everybody pretty well knows what our thoughts are because of the election and where we stand."

Hilmer said, "That's why we're sitting here having the discussion ...

"I laid out my thoughts on the paid relief," he said. "I laid out my thoughts on the weekend overtime. We said we're going to move the holiday pay to the bargaining unit. I've laid out my thoughts on the sick leave. The clothing allowance I said we're going to bring to the bargaining unit. I've just laid out where I think we ought to move on the health insurance. Do you have further discussion on the health insurance?

"It's part of the bargaining unit," Ottoline said. "Let them sit down and talk it."

Hilmer replied, "But the board needs to take something to the chief. What are your thoughts on the health insurance? We want to take it to the chief."

"I think it's fine right where it's at," Ottoline said. "We hammered it out before."

In other matters, district officials also want cross-trained employees skilled in both firefighting and medical services and renovated pumpers to handle EMS situations as well as fires.

Mehlville has taken out ads to hire up to 15 new firefighters and paramedics. Those employees could be cross-trained.

"They did tests for firefighters and paramedics," Hilmer said. "The results are in. We delayed the results until May 9 to notify the applicants. I think we need to look at new hires to be cross-trained firefighters and paramedics at the same time. This is something we have to move on relatively quick. We do need to get these new hires in. We're running a lot of overtime."

"(Cross training) would only be for new people," Silvernail added. "So (employees) would have a guarantee that it would not be something that would come back later on and require them to change their lifestyle."

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