Cairo Firemen's Pension Fund Board demands city pay its bill in full

Thursday, February 22, 2007

CAIRO, Ill. -- Cairo hasn't paid the bill for its firefighters' pensions, and the board overseeing the retirement fund wants the money.

In letters sent to city officials this week, the Cairo Firemen's Pension Fund Board demanded immediate payment of $96,101.98 that has been collected in taxes dedicated to the pension fund. Mayor Paul Farris, who faces voters next Tuesday, defiantly laid blame for the lack of payment on the Cairo City Council, which he said had not fulfilled its financial duties.

As a result, Farris said, the taxes collected for the pension fund can be treated as general revenue and spent on normal city operations. A similar tax for police pensions has been treated the same way, Farris said.

In a news release, pension fund president Bill Harrell said the city owes $15,647.90 from the 2004-2005 tax year and $80,454.08 from the 2005-2006 tax year. While the pension fund has a healthy balance now, Harrell said in an interview, the lack of payments from the city will jeopardize payments in the future.

Two years ago, Harrell said, the fund held $1.5 million. The latest balance, he said, was $1.3 million.

Harrell denied that the timing of the demand is related to Tuesday's primary, when Farris will face nine opponents as he seeks a second term.

"It was just the quarterly meeting of our board," Harrell said. "We met, and we had to get the approval of the board to do this."

There is little wiggle room for the city to withhold the money, Harrell said. "They are by statute bound to turn this money over to us for our pensions."

The board didn't detail what action would be taken if the money isn't forthcoming. But Harrell said bringing the matter before the public is more likely to get action than a lawsuit.

"I am elected to protect this fund for the other firefighters," he said. "The only way I can see to do that is to let everybody know in the city of Cairo. They have had lawsuits in the past and none of them have even come to trial."

Spending the money on general city operations has been blessed by city attorney Patrick Cox, Farris said. "The collected tax levies and their distributions have been received by the city of Cairo and monies expended for the day-to-day operation of the city to continue to protect and provide for the vital services that all humans deserve," Farris said.

The council has not passed appropriations ordinances on time once during his four-year tenure, Farris said. As a result, the particular functions stated in the tax levy ordinances don't have any legal authority. The council's action has "queered the process," Farris said. "From what I understand of it, with the first step of the process being queered, it just queers the whole process."

Harrell, however, placed the blame on Farris. "All I know is we are short $96,000 in our fund, but he is the cause," he said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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