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Last-minute firefighter promotions before retirement spark pension questions

Updated 8:02 pm, Thursday, January 3, 2013
  • Fire Chief Richard Felner answers questions from the Board of Selectmen regarding firefighter promotions. Photo: Genevieve Reilly / Fairfield Citizen
    Fire Chief Richard Felner answers questions from the Board of Selectmen regarding firefighter promotions. Photo: Genevieve Reilly

 

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An angry Selectman Kevin Kiley on Wednesday pressed Fire Chief Richard Felner on whether it is a good management practice to promote firefighters just before they retire -- a custom that Kiley estimated will cost the police/fire pension plan $1.8 million over the next 30 years.

Since June 2011, eight firefighters have retired, according to information from the town Human Resources Department. Of those eight, six received promotions or transfers that boosted their base salary and, as a result, increased their pension payments. In some of those cases, the changes took place just days or weeks before the firefighters' retirement.

At Wednesday's Board of Selectmen meeting, Kiley questioned Felner about the promotions. The situation was recently brought to Board of Finance Chairman Thomas Flynn's attention via an anonymous letter, purportedly by a member of either the fire or police department. Discussion of the Fire Department's pension/retirement practices was continued to the next Board of Selectmen meeting.

"I follow the contract," Felner said. "My responsibility is to make sure our citizens are well taken care of and to keep them safe and to make sure our firefighters go home safe at the end of each shift. I did what was best for the department and the town to eliminate any problems."

But Kiley said the promotions of seven firefighters, one of them only four days before he retired, "obligate the town to pay almost $2 million over the 30 years from our pension funds. That's the management question. Why were these decisions made and how were they in the best interest of the town?"

Felner repeatedly told the selectmen that he follows the firefighter union's contract, a contract that was approved by the Representative Town Meeting.

"I was told by this administration and the previous administration to follow the contract," the chief said. "As the CEO, that's what I'm doing. You don't want me to follow the contract, send me an email or tell me you don't want me to do it."

He said he calls following the contract good management.

"I can't just change it because I don't like it," Felner said. "I am a good manager and I know what I'm doing. If you want to change it, you've got to change it in negotiations. ... I'm doing an excellent job."

Timing of promotions

A spreadsheet provided by Kiley, which does not include the names of the individual firefighters who received the promotions in question, indicates that one firefighter signed retirement papers on Oct. 12, was promoted to training officer on Oct. 19 and retired Oct. 23. Felner disputed those dates, but Kiley insisted they were correct and came from the Human Resources Department.

Felner said he does not know how long a firefighter is going to stay after they are given a provisional, or temporary, promotion. He said there is nothing that requires firefighters to notify him and that he is informed by Human Resources of retirements when they are filed.

Under the contract, even if a promotion is provisional and brief, a firefighter's pension will be based on that higher salary if he or she retires while in that position. First Selectman Michael Tetreau said that practice raises a lot of questions, including the impact on the pension fund, fairness to taxpayers, and how the provision got into the contract in the first place.

Felner said he believes the practice had been in place since at least 1976.

"Why is it still there?" Tetreau said. "Why didn't it come up the last time the contract was up for discussion in the spring of 2010."

In response to questions from Selectman Cristin McCarthy Vahey, Felner said he has informed the Fire Commission of any promotions during executive sessions.

Under the contract, when there is a vacancy at the officer and assistant chief level, the senior firefighter in the rank below has the right to move into the open position.

Felner said last September that he felt it would be a good idea to give Assistant Chief Chris Tracy experience on the line as a shift commander. At that time, Doug Chavenello was the senior officer, as well as a certified instructor and asked to be transferred to the training center replacing Tracy, Felner said. Chavenello later retired on Oct. 10 for personal reasons and the spot was then filled by Stephen Curry. Curry also retired that same month and Tracy was moved back to training, at his request, Felner said.

Fairness advocated

Whatever the motivations or intent, Vahey said, looking at the spreadsheet and seeing people in positions for such a short period of time, is "uncomfortable at best and disconcerting. I can't support any kind of practice that would intentionally try and bump up a pension. Is it fair to the taxpayers? Is it fair to all of the employees?"

It may be legal, she said, but it is not something she wants the town to support going forward. What is needed, Vahey said, is a system of retirement that is "fair across the board."

Fire Commission Chairman Richard Popilowski took exception to the selectmen's discussion.

"I'm a little bit concerned about this," he said. "It seems to be a little bit of an attack on the chief. We hire the chief, we can only discipline the chief and fire the chief. You're stepping over your bounds."

Popilowski said the complaint letter sent to Flynn was not sent to the Fire Commission.

"We are in charge of the chief, we are in charge of running the Fire Department and we never got notified," he said.

2011 retiree promotions

In response to a request from Flynn, Human Resources Director Mary Carroll Mirylees provided a list of firefighters who retired since June 9, 2011.

According to that list, Kevin Kenney retired June 14, 2012, and was promoted to provisional lieutenant on May 31, 2012. Frank Kudlicki, who retired Sept. 20, 2012, received a promotion to provisional lieutenant on Sept. 13, 2012. Two assistant chiefs, Chavenello and Curry, who were specifically cited in the anonymous letter, were transferred to fire training. Chavenello was transferred on Oct. 4 and retired Oct. 10 of last year, and Curry retired Oct. 23. He had been transferred on Oct. 19.

Al Menillo was made a provisional lieutenant on May 31, 2012, and retired Nov. 3, 2012; and David Jepsen was promoted to provisional chief on Nov. 21, 2012. He is scheduled to retire on Dec. 28.

The Fire Department has six assistant chiefs, four of whom are assigned as shift commanders. The other two serve as the training officer or fire marshal and receive a 10 percent pay differential.

Mirylees confirmed for Flynn that any change in a firefighter's job status changes the pay as long as they are in the position and also affects the pension if the person holds that new job when they retire.

"I have been told the fire union contract lets someone on temporary assignment in a higher rank to retire at that rank if they have the time and age," the letter states. "However, transferring someone for less than two weeks before their retirement is a definite abuse. There is nothing like this going on at the Police Department."

Union weighs in

Robert Smith, the president of the local firefighters' union, said the contract gives the fire chief the discretion to appoint provisional lieutenants or chiefs if there is not an active promotional list. He said there was, in fact, a lieutenant's test scheduled for the day of Hurricane Sandy, that has since been rescheduled.

As for the transfers of Chavenello and Curry to fire training, Smith said the union filed a grievance over Assistant Chief Chris Tracy's removal from fire training to become a line officer. He said Tracy did not agree to the transfer, but the grievance has since been withdrawn now that Tracy is back in fire training.

Smith said it is also his understanding that all of the promotions or transfers were brought by Felner to the first selectman for approval.

"I've been told none of these moves was done without the approval of the first selectman," he said.

Tetreau, however, said he did not approve the promotions, but was simply informed by Felner of the Chavenello and Curry transfers.

Smith also said there are several instances in the recent past where the town has increased an employee's pay, thereby boosting their pension, as an incentive to retire.

In 2009, he said, three police captains were given an extra 6 percent toward their pensions as a retirement incentive. The firefighters at that time filed a grievance because that incentive was not offered to other police and fire personnel.

"We were told they were at-will employees," who were not members of a bargaining unit, Smith said, and that was why it was allowed.

Former Fiscal Officer Paul Hiller also received an increase in his pay as of his last day of work. His pension is being based on that higher salary.

Mirylees told the selectmen that those instances were part of a retirement incentive program.

greilly@ctpost.com; 203-556-2771; http://twitter.com/GreillyPost