Members of the Joplin Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 27 are willing to support a tax increase, but there are conditions attached, the City Council was told Monday night.

"The Southwest Missouri Fraternal Order of Police understands that it will take another revenue source to ensure the city can meet the financial obligations it has pledged and continue to provide the services it offers," FOP President Shelby Howard told the council.

"Joplin police officers primarily care about three main points" to promote the issue, he said.

The first condition would be that any tax increase be designated to fund the Police and Firemen's Pension Fund.

"It has been made very clear that the pension plan is a critical issue that needs to be addressed," Howard said. "If the city decides to move new employees to (a state plan), which we believe the vast majority of police employees would support, we want to know that the financial obligations for current employees who stay on the pension plan and the retirees will be covered," Howard said.

In June, the city’s finance director, Leslie Haase, identified the pension fund as one of the major issues hampering the city’s financial sustainability. She proposed moving new employees to a state retirement fund and finding a way to close out the existing pension fund, which would involve assuring that there is funding to pay all benefits firefighters and police officers are owed.

The pension fund currently has a funded ratio of 64 percent, meaning it could cover that much of the benefits earned by existing employees. Pension funds are not considered healthy unless funding is at least 80 percent.

A second condition for the Fraternal Order of Police would be assurance of an increase to a pay plan for police to the 80 percent level of a recent wage comparison study conducted by the city manager's office.

The third condition is the rollback of cuts that affect police officers recently made by the council in its efforts to reduce costs and keep the city budget sustainable. Those cuts included such things as uniform allowances of $540 a year, converting three positions to be filled by civilians at lower pay than sworn officers, and reducing the use of city vehicles to drive home.

The group's members believe that their interests would be best served by enactment of an increase in the general sales tax, Howard said. The tax is currently 1 cent for the city's general use, and a half-cent for public safety that expanded the ranks of the police and fire departments and has paid for additional fire stations and a training center. Asking voters to increase it another half-cent was one of the five tax options identified in a recent finance committee report to the council.

After the meeting, asked if city officials had offered to rollback the sustainability cuts in exchange for Fraternal Order of Police support of a tax proposal, Howard said that no city official had done so. He said the group is in hopes that the council might reverse some of its decisions on the sustainability cuts.

Mayor Gary Shaw, in an article in Sunday's edition, cited those sustainability cuts as one of the efforts the council had made to reduce costs before considering tax increases.

In other business, the council voted to allow city property on the northeast corner of 20th Street and Murphy Boulevard to be used as the location to install a Spirit Tree sculpture in tribute to the spirit of Joplin's tornado recovery.

The Spirit Tree was a surviving tree, stripped of most of its leaves, that was painted after the tornado to resemble a Native American spirit stick. It had stood since the 2011 tornado on the site of the former Dillons grocery store on 20th Street but collapsed earlier this year.

A volunteer group that formed afterward has worked the last few months to find a way to commemorate the tree and its meaning.

Doug Hunt, president of the board of a nonprofit organization formed by the group, told the council that no money will be sought from government to pay for the sculpture. He said donations will be sought from individuals and businesses.

He said the group had considered installing the sculpture in Mercy Park but agreed it should be returned to 20th Street where it originated.

Council member Phil Stinnett asked Hunt the scope of the sculpture project.

Hunt said the tree is to be re-created in sculpture form and is to be lighted so that it can been seen from a distance at night.

The mayor asked the parks director, Paul Bloomberg, if the city had enough land at that site to accommodate the sculpture and access to electricity if it were to be lighted. Bloomberg said there is enough land and that electrical service is available or could be extended to the site.

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