BY DAVID HUNN firstname.lastname@example.org > 314-436-2239 | Posted: Tuesday, June 5, 2012 12:15 am
ST. LOUIS • Angela Martin and Laura Morrison lost their husbands to a fire 10 years ago. The men were the first city firefighters to die in the line of duty in a quarter-century.
So when fire union leaders recently asked the women to be in a commercial denouncing Mayor Francis Slay's efforts to cut firefighter pensions, Martin and Morrison agreed — not for themselves, they said, but for the widows to come.
The commercial emphasizes their loss, firefighter bravery, and the importance of retirements to families. "I cannot imagine our lives without the pension," Martin says concluding the 30-second spot, which began airing last week. "What the mayor is trying to do is horrible."
But what the commercial and its sponsor, the International Association of Fire Fighters, don't tell viewers is this: Martin and Morrison together won about $37 million in settlements and judgments in the years following their husbands' deaths.
In comparison, the Firemen's Retirement System of St. Louis pays them each a widow's benefit of less than $23,000 a year.
Slay's campaign had been expecting the attack. He had a response posted on his campaign website by Friday, and an ad set for local airwaves over the weekend.
"You might have seen the unfortunate attack ad about firefighter pensions," he says in the spot. "You deserve the truth."
His plan, Slay says, gives firefighters a pay raise, asks them to contribute 1 percent more to their pensions, and doesn't affect current retirees. Moreover, he directly addresses the widows' criticism, promising to increase pension payments to the families of firefighters who have died at a fire.
"Without reform, we lose police and firefighters," he concludes. "We can't let that happen."
Slay's campaign director, Richard Callow, vowed to match the firefighters' media buys. "Our ad will run everyplace there's a TV set," he said late last week.
The mayor's proposal would deeply cut fire retirement benefits, especially for new hires, and save millions in city funds every year. He says there is no other choice. Fire pension costs have risen from $6.8 million in 2008, according to the city budget division, to $29 million this coming fiscal year.
Retirement system and union leaders say Slay is inflating numbers and that his proposal is little more than a "power grab" and "raid" on their pension funds.
"Our pension is the biggest thing that is near and dear to our heart, next to protecting the public," Ken Mitchell, a city fire captain and first vice president of Local 73, said late last week.
Firefighters have countered with a reform proposal and publicity campaign of their own: handing out fliers, mounting highway billboards, posting videos on YouTube and setting up a website, stlfdpension.com, all urging residents to reject the mayor's ideas.
Then, early last week, they started spending money on the airwaves.
The commercials ran on multiple channels several times. "Our husbands were firemen in the city of St. Louis, and they were killed in the line of duty on May 3, 2002," says Morrison, as the ad begins.
"Sometimes, it is really, really hard," follows Martin.
The camera then cuts to two firefighters in a firehouse. "My pension assures that my family is taken care of. We're willing to make sacrifices," says the first fireman.
"And support changes to our retirement," says the second fireman.
"But Mayor Francis Slay wants absolute power to raid our pensions," finishes the first.
Neither advertisement offers an unbiased view of Slay's current pension proposal.
The mayor says in his ad that his reforms give firefighters pay raises — yet city workers are in line to get raises this coming fiscal year either way, and only raises for department brass are tied to pension reform.
He also says widows will "get an increase." But most won't. His plan only boosts retirement percentages to those whose spouses die at the scene of a fire.
The firefighters' spot accuses Slay of a "raid" and "power grab." But Slay's plan would only cut state legislators out of the process. Firefighter benefits would still be determined by negotiations, approved by city aldermen, and signed into law by the mayor.
And, as Slay's staffers often note, federal and state laws prevent anyone from "raiding" a pension fund.
"It is a trumped-up, made-up allegation to scare taxpayers," said Jeff Rainford, the mayor's chief of staff. "That pension is theirs. They have a property right to it.
"I think the two widows," he continued, "were misled."
Martin and Morrison, however, do not appear to agree.
Martin's home is a brick-and-stone house at the end of a wooded cul-de-sac in Ladue that Martin bought in 2010 for $2.2 million.
Her son answered the door Monday. Denzel Martin, 21, said his mother was recovering from surgery. But, he said, she wasn't advocating for herself in the commercial. "She's arguing for all those firefighters," he said. "For all they do."
Morrison and her daughter, Megan, answered the door at her house in a subdivision near south St. Louis County's Oakville area.
"My family's been a part of the fire department for a long time," Morrison said. Her uncle and dad were both chiefs. Her brother's a fireman. Her mother lives on her father's pension now.
Morrison said she's not being used by the union. Slay's plan — and his ad — really bother her.
"Firemen have worked hard for a long time for this pension," she said. "I don't feel like the fireman's point of view is being told."
The legal settlements, Morrison said, have nothing to do with the pension dispute.
She believed that Robert Morrison and Derek Martin entered the blazing Gravois Refrigeration Co. on May 3, 2002, with faulty breathing equipment. The lawsuits against the company that made the equipment were meant to dig up the truth and punish the company for its wrongs.
"Our husbands, they died protecting the city," said Morrison. "The next person that happens to, God forbid — people just don't realize how hard it is."
Now, Morrison said, her son, 21, is engaged to be married, and already preparing to be a fireman, too.
So in the commercial, Morrison said, she's not speaking for herself. She is speaking for her son — and for his wife-to-be.