St. Louis mayor freezes hiring after aldermen override her veto of firefighter pension change

ST. LOUIS — Aldermen on Friday overrode a veto from Mayor Tishaura O. Jones and reversed a change to the firefighter pension system adopted years ago to rein in runaway costs. 

The vote, which still requires state approval, would return supervision of all firefighter pensions to a board led by firefighters, as it was for many years before the 2012 reforms.

Alderman Bret Narayan, who sponsored the bill, called it a “victory for working people.”

Jones responded by announcing a citywide hiring freeze.

“I’m disappointed to see that a majority of the Board of Aldermen made the fiscally irresponsible decision to endanger our city’s budget by overriding my veto,” she said Friday in a statement. 

Jones has long warned that such a move could lead to ballooning pension costs, and cited the uncertain cost of the bill — plus looming legislation in the statehouse that could slash revenue from the city’s income tax — in justifying the freeze. She said it won’t be applied to first responders, 911 dispatchers and workers in the water, trash and airport divisions. Other hires will be considered case-by-case, spokesperson Conner Kerrigan said. 

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The rare override of a mayoral veto marked a long-sought victory for firefighters, who form one of the city’s most influential unions. 

For 50 years, they got most anything they wanted when it came to their pension system. Mayors and aldermen approved extra retiree bonuses, funeral subsidies and sick-leave buybacks worth tens of thousands of dollars per retiree. Firefighters were allowed to retire but continue working, drawing salaries and pensions at the same time.

The firefighter-dominated pension board, too, lavished benefits on its own administrative employees, giving them, at one point, three retirement plans and 12 weeks worth of vacation, sick leave and holidays each year.

But that all stalled in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Stock losses hit the system hard, and city taxpayers had to pitch in tens of millions of dollars per year to bail it out. City officials eventually said they couldn’t afford it anymore.

Officials fought the union for months and eventually passed a suite of changes: They left the old firefighter-run board and system in place. But they also created a new system with slimmer benefits for younger firefighters, with a new oversight board led by City Hall appointees. City leaders cheered as pension costs fell.

But firefighters have spent the past few years trying to ratchet back the changes. They fell short twice, including last year, when aldermen were one vote short overriding Jones’ veto of a similar plan.

This year’s bill eliminates the city-run board, over the new system, and puts the older board in charge of both systems. The old board, overseen by firefighters, would not be able to increase benefits without aldermanic assent and actuarial cost studies. But it would be in charge of hiring the actuaries to do those studies, and could take a more aggressive stance in pushing for new benefits.

And, this year, supporters of the bill managed to find the last vote.

On Friday, only aldermen Shane Cohn, of Dutchtown, and Michael Browning, of Forest Park Southeast, plus Alderwoman Sharon Tyus, of Kingsway East, voted to sustain the veto. Alderwoman Laura Keys, of the O’Fallon neighborhood, was absent. 

After the meeting, Narayan and Aldermanic President Megan Green brushed off concerns about the plan leading to runaway costs, stressing that any increases in pension benefits will require separate bills. Narayan said that if aldermen start making irresponsible decisions, residents will vote them out.

They also criticized Jones’ hiring freeze as an overreaction. They pointed out that city coffers have been bolstered by federal pandemic aid, the NFL Rams relocation settlement, and ironically, budget surpluses fueled by the many vacancies that have hobbled services like 911 dispatch, trash pickup and tree trimming in recent years.

The city, Narayan said, should be spending some of that money to attract and retain more employees, including firefighters — though their department is better staffed than most.

Green said the hiring freeze would do the opposite. “I think at the end of the day, it will only succeed at diminishing city services,” she said.

The board’s vote on Friday still requires approval from state lawmakers, because the firefighter pension board is a creation of state statute.

State Sen. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis, is sponsoring the companion bill. It was heard in committee on Wednesday.

View life in St. Louis through the Post-Dispatch photographers’ lenses. Edited by Jenna Jones.