MFPD board continues efforts to reduce costs
May 25, 2005 - Nothing is sacred in the Mehlville Fire Protection Dis-trict budget as the new Board of Directors scrapes for reform to the dismay of the firefighters' union.
The board last week cut employee sick leave in half and slashed weekend overtime pay from double-time to time-and-a-half for firefighters and 1.68-time pay for paramedics.
And employee benefits could be the next to be reduced.
Two insurance consultants presented alternate benefit plans last week that could save in excess of $350,000 by re-quiring employees to pay more out of pocket.
Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fight-ers, meanwhile, wants a seat at the bargaining table.
Local 1889 President Chris Francis wanted time for a union vote, asking the board to delay any action until the union met in June, saying a new Memorandum of Under-standing, or working contract, wouldn't take effect until July 1 anyway. Plus, sick leave, overtime and benefits are part of the MOU and should be negotiated all at once, not as separate items.
"Don't negotiate different items of the memorandum at different times," Francis said. "You negotiate the whole package and then you have it voted on by the membership. And once they approve it, we can bring it back to you then.
"I am not understanding the rush that we are doing to try to cut all these things, to do different things. What is the overall goal of this board?" he asked. "It's obviously to save money, but to what extent?
"Are we wanting to build a reserve stacked up to the millions of dollars we had before or are you wanting to cut the current 90-cent tax rate? What is your overall goal because I've never heard it sitting out here,'' Francis added.
Board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman replied: "You should know the goal. The goal is to be responsible to the residents of this district and make this district and this fire department the best that it can be. The stuff that's been going on amazes me.
"We have stretchers that have not been replaced for 12 years, buildings being in some sad shape, and we were told there's no money for any of this, that we were going to be, you know, taking people's lives at risk because we needed a tax.
"Here we come in and we find some pretty outlandish, excessive things that are going on in this budget,'' she said.
Board Chairman Aaron Hilmer noted campaign promises to control spending and rolling back the 33-cent tax-rate hike approved in November. Sick leave, overtime, benefits and clothing allowances always have been a target, he noted.
With 2-1 votes, the board trimmed the weekend overtime, threw out the 12 hours of paid relief each month for the union president to conduct union business and cut sick leave in half.
Board Secretary Daniel Ottoline cast the dissenting votes, saying the union was excluded from the bargaining process.
"In all fairness, we agreed, we agreed that the president and the chief would come back with some kind of agreement," Ottoline said. "Now apparently the chief and you agreed. They have not agreed."
"There might be things we do they won't agree to, Dan," Hilmer responded.
"I'm sure they won't," Ottoline said, "but that's something that has to be hammered out between the two of them."
"As we talked three weeks ago, we laid out these very clear instructions that on May 16 we wanted to act on these things, on the sick leave, on the paid relief and the overtime," Hilmer said. "The three weeks is up. I think we should go ahead.''
Now, 24-hour employees will have eight days of sick leave per year, rather 16. If the days aren't used, employees receive a $1,600 bonus, which would decrease $400 for every sick day used. However, if an employee is suspended or fired, they would forfeit the bonus.
Mehlville recently paid $38,000 in accrued sick leave to Greg Harwood, a former EMS deputy chief charged with stealing morphine from Mehlville ambulances, Hilmer said.
"If you're suspended or fired, you don't get anything," he said.
Meanwhile, 40-hour administrative employees would have one sick day per month, rather than 35 per year.
And employees no longer can accrue sick days. The district currently has more than $2.7 million in reserve for accumulated sick leave owed, but under the new sick-leave policy, accrued sick leave will be capped at 60 days and the district will not pay for future unused sick leave. Also, when an employee takes a sick day, those hours not worked will not count for that week, meaning he or she won't be paid overtime unless they actually work overtime.
"We have effectively stopped all future liability for the district," Hilmer said, adding that by decreasing sick leave, Mehlville will save on overtime hours.
The board also plans to exclude office employees from the district's clothing allowance policy. Currently employees get $950 per year and administrators get $1,150 per year for uniforms. While nothing was approved, the board plans to cut that to $500 per year and establish an account to purchase uniforms from a dealer when needed, rather than give employees a $500 check. If not needed, employees won't get the $500. That policy will be instituted Jan. 1, Hilmer said.
And next week, the board will delve further into health insurance benefits. Hoffman Group and J.W. Terrill, Mehlville's current insurance consultant, presented alternative benefit packages to the board last week and both returned for Monday's meeting — after the Call went to press — to further discuss the plans.
The consultants presented similar plans, each saving the district more than $300,000.
Terrill quoted United HealthCare, or UHC, Mehlville's current provider, as well as Group Health Plan, or GHP, a former carrier. Being unable to get UHC, Hoffman just quoted GHP.
Currently, employees pay no deductible, $10 for office visits, $75 for emergency visits and $35 for urgent care.
Based on Hilmer's recommendations to Terrill and Hoff-man, a new benefit plan would charge employees at least a $500 deductible, a $15 to $30 copayment for office visits, $100 for emergency room visits and $50 for urgent care.
Plus, employees would no longer receive free 100 percent dependent coverage. They would have to pay 30 percent of dependent coverage. Both providers offered a buy-up plan for a small cost to employees.
"Employees would pay $18 per month for the buy-up plan," Hoffman President Dave Hoffman said. "St. Louis County cops pay $70 per month for that."
Mehlville currently pays more than $11,300 per employee for health insurance. Based on Hoffman's information, that could drop to $6,776, a savings of around $400,000. Employees would pay $2,767 for the basic plan or $3,530 for the buy-up plan.
Citing his plan, Wirth said: "The district is looking at a $246,000 savings just by making the employees pay the 30 percent of the dependent cost. So then we look at United HealthCare's options, and again this is based on instructions from you, it is 100 percent coverage after a $500 deductible with a $25 office visit. You'll see a savings on $148,928. That is the premium savings because of the benefit changes. In addition to the $148,000, if you make the dependents pay 30 percent of the premium, that's an additional $221,000 in savings. You're looking at $369,000 of savings."
Francis urged the board to reject GHP's offer, saying employees had difficulty getting care when insured by GHP three years ago.
"We had nothing but problems that entire year," he said. "It was no less than two or three complaints per week."
Throughout their campaign, Hilmer and Stegman criticized sick leave, overtime, clothing allowances and benefits. Now, they're starting to scale them back. In the process, Francis says firefighters are getting a bad rap.
"A lot of the newspaper reports lately have characterized us — as best I can put it — as money-grubbing, greedy bastards," he said. "I don't know where we lost the confidence of some of the taxpayers I know that are probably here tonight, but we have always tried to be the first-class union and employee that we can be. We come to work. We do our job every day. We go out there. We make the calls. We never joined this job to try to be millionaires or anything else, but we do try to work for a fair wage and fair benefits.
"This local has not taken a pay raise in three years due to the fact that it was us that came to the board and asked them not to give us a pay raise because we knew they were in stressed financial times," he added. "Years back we used to be in the top three (in pay) between Creve Coeur and Chesterfield and ourselves, depending on whose contract came up. We lowered that number. We are now No. 12 in the area because of the fact that we worked on getting better benefits, such as the full-paid family medical (coverage) as well as other things.
"So I don't know where the animosity has come toward the union and toward our firefighters and paramedics," he said.