As many of you probably know, Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters supported former Mayor Mark Funkhouser in his bid for re-election earlier this year.
Within a day or two after Funkhouser finished third in the primary, officials with Local 42 met with Sly James and Mike Burke, who advanced to the general election by finishing first and second respectively in the primary.
In short order, the firefighters endorsed James, who went on to win the general election handily.
With the firefighters, there’s always a price to be paid — usually a big price — for their backing.
The telling, upcoming issue is pension reform, which will have a massive effect on city finances — one way or the other — for decades to come.
Today, the City Council Finance Committee will consider recommendations from a special Pension System Task Force, which has been meeting for almost a year, trying to devise a plan for moving the city forward on pensions in a fair but responsible way.
Task Force Chairman Herb Kohn, a lawyer with extensive political ties, will discuss the task force’s recommendations with the Finance Committee.
Naturally, Local 42 opposes the key recommended changes because they would reduce the lavish, defined pension system that firefighters — and most other city employees — enjoy.
According to the lead editorial in Monday’s Kansas City Star, task force recommendations include:
:: Increasing the employee contributions rate by a minimum of 1 percent in all four of the city’s pension systems.
:: Eliminating the 3 percent annual cost of living adjustment for many retirees and substituting one that could average 2 percent or less per year.
:: Changing the funding formula so that employees have to work a few more years before they are eligible for full pensions.
The editorial, probably written by Yael Abouhalkah, says the main thing missing is a recommendation to quickly establish a 401(k)-style plan for some workers.
The pension issue essentially will put James and the 12 other council members in the position of choosing between city and citizens’ interests on one hand and union interests on the other.
You can bet that Local 42 has been lobbying the council for weeks and that its officials laid the foundation for this battle early this year, when they decided which candidates to endorse.
You can also bet that the council members, including James, will be squirming in their seats as they try to balance any pledges they made to Local 42 with their fiduciary responsibility to the public.
James — who has had a nice, smooth, seven-month honeymoon — will be the main person on the spot. We will be able to judge by his actions on this issue if he is a mayor for the people or a mayor for the special interests.
My guess is that the task force’s decision not to push quickly for the institution of a 401(k)-style plan at City Hall was the first major concession to Local 42 and the city’s other major union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Local 42 will be looking for more concessions, and they’ll be wielding the hammer of past promises against the anvil of future endorsements:
“Vote with us, like you said you would last year…Vote with us or we’ll defeat you the next time you run.”
In its editorial, The Star laid the challenge at James’ feet.
“James and the council need to resist the pressure to protect the current arrangements. The special committee’s recommendations would go a long way to control the cost of taxpayer-financed pensions.”
Sly James…your honeymoon is about to end. The cards are being dealt; we will be watching to see how you play them.