In the Line of Fire

An Olivette firefighter becomes the target of the city manager

Dec 26, 2001 at 4:00 am
Olivette is a lovely little burg, with its 7,438 residents nestled in the three-and-a-half square miles between the Innerbelt and Lindbergh Boulevard on either side of Olive Boulevard. Surrounded by Overland, University City, Ladue and Creve Coeur, Olivette has a median household income higher than those of most county enclaves. Children in Olivette attend Ladue public schools, the county's best funded, and readings on that basic barometer of fiscal fitness -- property value -- are on the rise.

If there is trouble in this suburban fiefdom, it has to do with City Council members' squabbling over whether to tape-record executive sessions and the city manager's having the head of the firefighters' union investigated for violating campaign-finance laws. It's not exactly like citing an alderman for public urination or calling the mayor a Nazi, but, considering this is the suburban version of civic unrest, Olivette is no slouch.

The firefighter flap started benignly enough, with the Olivette Fire Department's Capt. Harold Cash sending out letters in support of the Proposition 1 sales-tax increase on the Nov. 6 ballot. The proposal called for a quarter-cent hike in Olivette's sales tax, with the resulting funds going to the city's fire department. After the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the ensuing empathy for New York's firefighter heroes, who would dare vote against it? Olivette voters passed the proposition by a margin of more than 10 to 1, with 1,401 voting for the tax increase and 139 voting against it.

Before that election, on Oct. 12, city manager Tim Pickering had sent Cash a letter telling him that a mailing he handled backing Proposition 1 "did not conform with the Campaign Finance Disclosure Laws of Missouri." Pickering wrote that Cash might also have been in violation of the "Federal Mail Fraud Statute." In the future, Pickering warned, if Cash failed to abide by state or federal law, he might "be subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination."

Cash's transgression? The envelope he used bore the return address of Olivette City Hall. Cash is the union shop steward for the Olivette firefighters and is the vice president of Local 2665 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which includes firefighters in St. Louis, Jefferson and Franklin counties. Cash believes Pickering is out to get him because of his previous criticisms of Pickering and the City Council.

"It was just a way for him to start a paper trail to maybe get me fired down the road," says Cash. "I cause him nothing but trouble. I correct him all the time at council meetings. It just bugs them. They want to say whatever they want and go on about their business. I've been trying to keep them honest as best I can. I know I've pissed them off a lot."

Once Proposition 1 passed, things didn't get any better. All city employees got a 4 percent pay increase, and Pickering proposed an extra $2,000-a-year boost for 12 of the city's 21 firefighters who are also paramedics, conveniently leaving out Cash and eight others who are not. Considering that the sales-tax boost will bring in an extra $250,000 per year, says City Councilman Scott Smith, Pickering's proposal was "parsimonious." Smith proposed a $7,000-per-year increase for each fireman and policeman.

Cash complains that salaries for Olivette's firefighters are anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 less than salaries in fire departments in University City, Ladue and Creve Coeur and that the increases proposed by Pickering don't close the gap. Smith and Cash say the pay disparity causes turnover. "Most people who leave go to other fire departments for one reason -- the pay," Smith says. "Olivette can compete in that market. Our residents believed that when they voted for the sales tax, they wanted it to be used to retain our fire-department employees."

Pickering says the fire department needs to replace outdated equipment, with the first budgeted item being a new $115,000 rescue truck to replace a 13-year-old vehicle. Additional pay raises for the fire department are scheduled for next year, he says. As for Cash's complaint about getting grief for the alleged campaign-finance violation, Pickering says it's being handled as a personnel issue and declines to comment on it.

Smith, who contends that equipment enhancement isn't needed as severely as pay increases, says Pickering and others in city government have it in for Cash. "For some reason, the city manager does not like Harold Cash, and he's looking for some reason to have him dismissed," Smith says. "It's regrettable."

If Cash can hold on long enough, relief may be on the way. Both Smith and Craig Cohen, who was elected to the City Council in November, are seen as reformers. Smith hopes that the balance of power on the five-member council will shift in the spring election. Maybe so, but they'd better watch those campaign finance-laws.

Cash isn't folding; he has complained at recent City Council meetings that Proposition 1 funds will be misused. Pickering, Cash says, "figures if he comes after me and shuts me up, then his problems will go away, but there's nobody in this city who likes this man. In an employee-morale survey a few months back, in the summer, the employees just hammered him to death."

A "Morale in the Work Place" survey was conducted this summer among Olivette's city workers. Asked to rate their "general feelings about the City Manager," 22 of the 44 respondents circled "Mostly Negative"; 10 circled "Somewhat Negative." Being unpopular with three-fourths of the employees ought to have been a wake-up call for Pickering, not a call to arms.