Promotion/pension flap to be probed by lawyer

FAIRFIELD -- Town officials have ordered an independent probe into the Fire Department's pension practices after a number of firefighters were promoted just before they retired -- boosting their pensions at taxpayers' expense.

First Selectman Michael Tetreau said he decided a review of the retirement process is needed after it came to light that pensions had been inflated by the last-minute promotions.

Selectman Kevin Kiley has said 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.

Board of Finance Chairman Thomas Flynn said at last week's meeting it was the cost of the promotions that got the panel's attention, although members spent most of two hours 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 have reached the maximum for 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 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. Tracy was moved back to the training center and the grievance withdrawn.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 he or she is in that job at retirement, no matter if it was 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 had 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 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 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.