The Joplin City Council voted at a special meeting Monday night to ask voters Nov. 5 to approve a half-cent sales tax dedicated to closing out the city's troubled pension fund for fire and police department workers.
The vote was eight in favor, with one council member, Melodee Colbert-Kean, absent. The vote came after remarks by police and fire representatives, the city finance director, and the mayor.
Jeremie Humphreys, president of Joplin Professional Firefighters, said, "Our primary concern is the safety of our citizens. Firefighter recruitment and retention is vital to that."
When an effort began two years ago to seek action by city leaders to address a loss of seasoned firefighters and police officers, Humphreys said a misunderstanding on the part of the workers interfered. They did not understand the financial burden the city faced with the pension plan and instead focused on pay raises.
"We had very little support from the council and city administration when we started," he said. "Many times, it was because we were not educated on how the city works, fiscal policies, public funding and many more complex issues that the council and the city administration deals with daily. We had many problems and no real solutions."
That changed, though, when representatives of the fire and police departments, city employees, administration and representatives of the council along with a consultant began collaborating again on an internal work group that eventually agreed upon the need to solve pension underfunding, he said.
That helped lead to what Humphreys described as "real solutions" to the recruitment and retention issues.
Police union representatives were not available Monday night to talk about the outcome of the work group meetings because they were away for training. Police Chief Matt Stewart spoke on behalf of the police officers.
"We've been meeting now for several months, mainly to address recruiting and retention for public safety positions within the city. As we were meeting, one of the things that became very clear was that the pension was one of the issues that needed to be resolved in order to address our recruiting and retention. We most recently held a vote among the members of the pension plan, and 98% of our members approved moving forward with this plan," he said of the sales tax proposal.
"We all support this initiative and feel this is the best course of action to address our recruiting and retention," Stewart said.
Mayor Gary Shaw said the internal work group meetings enabled the city groups to come to terms.
He and the mayor pro tem, Ryan Stanley, represented the council on the work group. "It has been very encouraging," Shaw said of the meetings. "It helped us understand where they were coming from, helped them understand where we were coming from, and really it created a good team effort."
"I agree," Stewart responded.
Finance Director Leslie Haase said the council measure considered Monday night calls for a half-cent increase in general sales tax to close the police and fire pension fund. The tax could provide $6 million to $7 million a year that would be deposited solely into the pension fund to raise the funded level of the plan, which currently is only at a little more than 60 percent of the benefits that will be owed over time.
That would free up the $3 million that the city would have to pay into the fund next year for other city costs, Haase said.
The proposal includes a sunset provision that would end the tax either in 12 years or when the pension fund is funded at 120 percent.
If the tax is approved, new hires in police and fire departments would be placed in a state retirement plan and those who have joined the pension plan in the last 10 years could choose whether to stay in the plan or move to the state plan.
A pension election posing the sales tax idea to those covered by the plan ended Friday with a vote of 211 in favor of the sales tax proposal and five opposed, Haase told the council.
The council did not have further discussion Monday night among its members regarding the proposal. The work group's recommendation had been given to council Aug. 5, and members discussed it briefly.