CLAYTON, Mo – Last November, the St. Louis County Council unanimously approved changes to the county’s pension system, but now some council members say they didn’t know what they were voting for and are looking to roll back the pension plan by nearly ten years.
Controversy arose when members of the County Council realized that the changes they voted on would also raise St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch’s retirement benefits.
The changes were part of a bill sponsored by former County Councilman Mike O’Mara and supported by St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger to allow McCulloch to gain access to full state and county pensions. If McCulloch retires in 2018, he would gain around $40,000 more per year than if the changes were not set in place.
In addition to the changes in McCulloch’s retirement benefits, the bill allowed employees who have gaps of two or more years in their county work history to also count as years of service into their pension.
According to Stenger, the St. Louis County Retirement Board noted the elimination of the two-year break in service requirement would “encourage desirable former county employees to return to County service by eliminating the requirement that they vest again in the plan to be eligible for retirement benefits for their returning service.”
Stenger provided a two-page bill and memo to the County Council before the vote, which outlined the proposed changes, and the legislation was passed 7-0.
With Council members Hazel Erby and Rochelle Walton-Gray in support, as well as council allies Sam Page and Ernie Trakas, it appears that the swing vote as to whether the council will not only flip-flop on their November vote but also slash McCulloch’s pension benefit, is Councilman Mark Harder.
Harder, who voted for the change, said he thought it was regarding other pension changes and not an increase for McCulloch’s retirement.
“It was introduced with three other changes to the pension as well and we had unanimous consent on those other changes,” Harder said. “We’re trying to figure out how it came up, where it came up, and what kind of information was given to us.”
Harder said even though just eight months ago he voted for the pension changes, he now supports one solution offered by Erby, which would reverse their decision.
“We’re doing some research on it – we’re doing a little bit more due diligence than we did last time,” he said. “[Erby] came up with [one] solution, which is to reinstate the language from before. We’ll debate that and talk about it and get expert opinions, and see if that’s the way to go.”
Erby said when the legislation was voted on in November, that county council members were satisfied with the answers and were okay with the changes.
However, later, Erby told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “We were blindsided. We didn’t know the full ramifications of the bill.”
She added that the council members didn’t realize that the new legislation would increase McCulloch’s retirement benefits.
In a memo from Stenger dated November 1, 2016 to the county council, he specifically stated that the bill would “eliminate a reduction in county retirement plan benefits for the prosecuting attorney.”
“It was never implied that was what it was for,” Erby said. “We felt that we were doing something for former employees’ retirement, we had no idea it was going to benefit one person. It was never discussed.”
However, there are some council members that disagree that the language was hard to understand when the legislation was introduced.
Pat Dolan, another council member, who voted for the bill, said Stenger’s request was quite clear when it was introduced.
“We had a very concise, clear letter, stating with the prosecutor’s position would change (within) the letter we received on it,” Dolan said. “But I brought the letter back up just to refresh my memory and it was very clear. Personally, I don’t know about anyone else, but I had time to make a decision.”
Additionally, Dolan said McCulloch would deserve the benefits because of the work he put in as St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney.
“He’s almost a 30-year employee of the county and he’s put his time in and a lot of time for the benefit for St. Louis County,” he said. “It’s not taking anything away from the pension fund that can’t be paid, and I think he deserves it.”