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Firefighter promotion/pension flap to be probed by outside lawyer

Updated 6:44 am, Thursday, January 10, 2013
  • Fire Chief Richard Felner, left, and Fire Commission Chairman Richard Popilowski discuss firefighter pension procedures at Tuesday's Board of Finance meeting.   Fairfield CT 1/8/13 Photo: Genevieve Reilly / Fairfield Citizen
    Fire Chief Richard Felner, left, and Fire Commission Chairman Richard Popilowski discuss firefighter pension procedures at Tuesday's Board of Finance meeting. Fairfield CT 1/8/13 Photo: Genevieve Reilly

 

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An independent legal review of the firefighters' pension system is planned after controversy erupted over recent promotions, granted just before retirement, which boosted retirement benefits.

First Selectman Michael Tetreau on Tuesday told the Board of Finance that he decided a review of the firefighter retirement process is needed after it came to light that some pensions recently had been increased by promotions for a series of firefighters, in some cases, only weeks before they retired.

According to Selectman Kevin Kiley, seven promotions/transfers and retirements in 2012 will mean an additional overall $1.8 million in pension payouts over the next 30 years. One of those transfers to the training center was for 12 days, while a second was for 14 days. Information supplied previously by Kiley that indicated those transfers took placed less than a week before retirement was incorrect, officials said Tuesday.

However, finance Chairman Thomas Flynn said it is the financial impact the promotions had on pensions that brought the matter under that board's purview, although the financiers spent the bulk of two hours Tuesday questioning Fire Chief Richard Felner about why the job changes were made.

Felner gave the finance board the same report he gave last week to the Board of Selectmen regarding the job changes. He pointed out that none of the firefighters who retired had less than 30 years on the job. After 30 years, he said, they continue to pay into the pension, plan but they are maxed out on their payout, receiving no more than 80 percent of their final salary.

"There were no deals made," Felner said, either between himself and the firefighters, or himself and Tetreau, regarding any of the promotions or transfers.

He said he decided to transfer Assistant Chief Chris Tracy from the training center to get line experience as a shift commander, and moved Assistant Chief Doug Chavenello to fill the fire training spot last Sept. 26. On Oct. 10, Chavenello retired for personal reasons, Felner said. He then moved Assistant Chief Stephen Curry into the training position, but Tracy decided he wanted to go back to the training center and a grievance was filed.

Curry didn't want to go back to the line, Felner said, and so decided to retire instead. Tracy was moved back to the training center, and the grievance withdrawn.

Because of the transfers, however, the salaries for both men were boosted from $101,100 to $110,210 and their pension benefits increased from $80,800 to $88,968.

Felner explained that under the firefighters' contract with the town, if there is no promotional list available, open positions are filled by the most senior firefighter. It also allows a firefighter to retire at the higher salary if they are in that job when they retire, no matter if it is only a short while.

Board Vice Chairman Robert Bellitto Jr., who served as a liaison on the contract negotiating committee in 2010, said the town originally wanted to change the contract to require a firefighter be in a new position for 12 months in order to have that salary included in pension calculations.

"It was rejected by the union and (then-First Selectman Kenneth Flatto) decided it was not a topic he wanted to pursue," Bellitto said.

Negotiations on a new contract with the firefighters' union will begin again soon.

Several finance board members expressed disbelief and concern that firefighters are not required to notify the chief of their impending retirements and that they could retire within days of signing their retirement papers.

Human Resources Director Mary Carroll Mirylees said the pension plan rules call for a 31-day notice, though that apparently has not been enforced. A notice was sent to members of the firefighters' pension plan Tuesday informing them that they must give 31 days notice of retirement, Felner said.

Mirylees said she has wanted to reinstate that requirement, especially since she is now getting retirement papers filed, in some cases, only a day before retirement.

Felner said he has followed the contract, and that in order to prevent similar situations in the future, the contract must be changed.

"We're going to hire independent counsel to tell us what we have to do?" Felner asked the other officials. "You know what you have to do," indicating that provisions in the contract need to be revised. The chief added that he believes that hiring the outside counsel is a waste of money.

Finance board members asked Tetreau that its list of over 20 questions regarding the promotions and retirement process be given to the lawyer hired to conduct the review, and that the lawyer's report be made to them as well.

Tetreau, who said he made the decision to hire independent counsel after the pension discussion at the Board of Selectmen meeting, expects a lawyer to be selected within a few days.