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Major cuts finished, according to Hilmer


June 15, 2005 - A period of major changes in the Mehlville Fire Protection District is over, Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer said.

The board last week overhauled the district's employee health insurance benefits by switching brokers and reducing benefit packages that could save the district an estimated $446,000.

The board also voted June 6 to cut chief officer vacations by one week and to eliminate holiday pay for eight-hour employees starting in 2006.

Previously, the board had trimmed 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.

"We've done all of the major cutting, per se," Hilmer said. "We're going to start looking at the budget for the rest of the year and start looking at getting the ALS (Advanced Life Support) program started."

The board voted 2-1, with Hilmer and Board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman in favor and Board Secretary Daniel Ottoline opposed, to stay with United HealthCare and to hire the Hoffman Group as the district's benefit consultant for health, dental, disability, and life insurance plans.

Both the Hoffman Group and J.W. Terrill, Mehlville's previous insurance consultant, had presented similar plans, based on Hilmer's recommendations, that each could have saved the district more than $300,000.

Hilmer said at last week's board meeting that the board should hire Hoffman, which had agreed to work without commission for the rest of the year, instead of J. W. Terrill, which was paid more than $150,000 in commission by the district over the last three years.

"What that means, is we will be able to evaluate their (Hoffman's) service at the end of this year, they will evaluate how much service they have to provide to us, and then we will negotiate a flat fee to retain them, and then all the bids we get from all the carriers we would get from then on would be sans commission,'' he said.

International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1889 President Chris Francis told Hilmer at the meeting that he did not believe the district should switch brokers. He told the Call that Terrill would have had more buying power than Hoffman when getting bids for insurance policies.

"They (J.W. Terrill) have the power to say: 'If you don't take care of these guys, the other 10 fire districts or so that I have, we may be looking to pull them out too.' All that I saw in Mr. Hoffman's is that they have only one fire district, so if he goes to them and says: 'If you don't take care of Mehlville, I'll pull Wentzville.' Well, the insurance company will say: 'Go ahead.'"

The Hoffman Group's plan will cost the district about $1.02 million this year with the cuts to benefits, while the previous annual premium was about $1.47 million. So where the district spent $11,300 on each employee last year, it will only spend $7,868 on this plan.

The board also voted along the same lines, 2-1, to modify the current health plan as laid out in the proposal so that employees must pay higher co-payments and thirty percent of dependent coverage or opt for a buy-up plan. The new plan will take effect July 1.

The new plan charges a $500 deductible for employees and a $1,000 deductible for an employee's family. It also charges a $25 co-payment for office visits, $100 for emergency room visits and $50 for urgent care. Employees have no monthly payments, but family coverage under this plan costs about $145 each month.

Employees may opt for the buy-up plan, which at a cost, will provide the same coverage employees had before.

This buy-up plan would charge no deductible for employee or family coverage and it would charge a $10 co-payment for office visits, $75 for emergency room visits and $35 for urgent care. This plan would cost an employee $59 a month with tax and $288 for the family.

The board also approved a disability plan and life insurance policy under Standard Insurance. The disability plan will come into effect 180 days after a claim that is approved by the insurance company, vs. a claim being approved by the board as was done in the past. The life insurance policy will provide $72,000.

The board also voted 2-1, with Ottoline opposed, to cut chief officer's days of paid vacation by one week, so they will receive 25 days instead of 30. The board already had reduced the number of sick and personal days, so now instead of 75 paid days off, chief officers now receive 25 days of vacation, 12 days combined of sick and personal days and eight paid holidays.

During the meeting, Ottoline asked Chief James Silvernail if he had a problem with cutting the paid vacation by one week and the chief replied that he did not.

"With being new here, and with looking at the overall picture, I didn't feel like it was going to hurt anybody real terribly bad," Silvernail told the Call. "And I guess the other way I looked at this was that during this there was a lot of sacrifices being made with what was going on, and with chief officers that wasn't going to hurt us."

The board also voted 2-1 with Ottoline opposed to eliminate the extra holiday pay for eight-hour employees. Before, eight-hour employees would get paid for the day off and receive an additional $200. The employees still will get paid for the holiday, but will not receive the $200 bonus.

Ottoline said he does not like the manner in which Hilmer and Stegman are making cuts and believes there needs to be more agreement between the union and the board.

"In the past, the executive board of the union and his staff have sat down to try and iron out a memorandum of understanding," Ottoline told the Call. "What they hammered out, they brought to the board of directors for our OK … (Now) The way it is is the way Aaron Hilmer wants or else, and Bonnie Stegman."

Francis said that he agrees and that Hilmer should be more willing to work with the union and let members have a voice in the decision-making process.

"We had met with them before that and we had instilled in them that you don't negotiate bits and pieces of a contract, you negotiate the whole things," Francis said. "We take that back to the members and we say: 'Look, here's what we negotiated, good or bad, this is what we negotiated' and then we vote on it as a package, we bring it back to the board and we say: Yes, they've accepted,' and we'll sign it, and it's good or 'no, they didn't accept it, here were the problems, we need to meet again to go back over it to see if we have any room to work out these errors.'"

Hilmer told the Call that he is on the board to be the voice of the taxpayers and not the voice of the union.

"They (the union) can go back to their people, they're never going to like it," Hilmer said. "We are acting in a manner that is responsible for the taxpayers. Period."

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