The cry from taxpayers to whittle down public-employee benefits has echoed across Connecticut and the nation.

In the private-sector, defined-benefit pension plans guaranteeing so-many dollars a month at age 65 now are about as common as snow at Penfield Beach on the Fourth of July.

And soaring employee costs for health care -- both from higher monthly premiums and endless lists of new co-pays -- are a fact of life on private-sector shop floors and offices across the state.

In Fairfield, town officials have heard the message and are working to cut taxpayer costs by bringing town-employee benefits more in line with the private sector.

Their negotiators are working to reel in benefits costs, bargaining for new hires to get not guaranteed pensions but defined-contribution plans similar to 401(k) programs that are far less constly in the long run.

The town is being frugal on pay scales and winning cutbacks in sick days while shifting more of health care costs to municipal workers.

But what the town now is demanding of the firefighters union seems on its face simply unfair.

After contract negotiations that were beginning to rival the 30 Years War for duration, the two sides agreed on a contract -- one in which the town won some significant concessions. The rank and file accepted that they'd get fewer sick days and pay more for health coverage, and they ratified the deal.

But when union officials went to put final signatures on the contract, they say, the town had changed the rules of the game -- after the score had been settled. And those new rules would make big-time losers of some firefighters.

By the town's new reckoning, some firefighters would have to pay the town more than $3,000 for taking sick days to which they were wholly entitled under the previous contract.

The dispute involves the effective date of the new contract. The town now contends the deal is retroactive to July 2010, union officials say.

The union insists it is effective on the date it is signed -- and union leaders haven't signed it yet.

The first and last pages of a tentative agreement signed by former First Selectman Ken Flatto -- and examined by The Citizen -- state the effective dates of the contract are "Date of signing through June 30, 2013."

An earlier version of the contract would have run from July 2010 through June 30, 2013.

One of the key union concessions in the deal was a nearly 60 percent reduction in annual sick days -- from 28 to 12. If the terms were retroactive to July 2010, firefighters would have to pay the town a day's pay for every sick day they took over 12.

Union officials say 22 firefighters would owe the town money, some more than $3,000.

When the public-sector-vs.-private-sector debate gets revved up, over-the-top stereotypes can be bandied about as universal truths.

The public sector worker spends the day shift leaning against a shovel or the night shift parked behind the convenience store with a box of doughnuts.

The private-sector employee works nonstop under foreign-sweatshop conditions or is herded into a tiny cubicle to work 14 hours straight under harsh lights.

Both stereotypes are hyperbole; neither is true. There are good workers and bad in both sectors -- driven, over-achieving municipal workers and private-sector slackers on salary.

One can only hope there has been a whopper of a communication failure with the firefighters' contract, one that quickly can be rectified.

Yes, firefighters with a lot of overtime can have comfortable incomes. But few will ever live in Greenfield Hill or overlooking Southport Harbor. Some, in fact, can't afford to live in Fairfield. For most, $3,000 is a bundle.

This kind of penalty is not private-sector parity. We'd cry foul in the private sector, too.