Two months after the Fairfield Representative Town Meeting rejected a three-year contract for the town's firefighters, it appears town officials and union representatives are on a collision course as the pact heads to state arbitration, according to First Selectman Kenneth Flatto and Local 1426 President Bob Smith.

However, Smith noted, "We're still trying to work out an agreement with the town."

Any amended contract would have to go before the union board, then the rank-and-file for a vote, prior to RTM review. But Assistant Fire Chief Doug Chavenello, who is involved in the negotiations in an advisory capacity, wonders if work on a revised contract is worth the effort.

"We were told, off the record by select Republicans, that any contract that we or any other union negotiated would be turned down regardless of what was in it," said Chavenello. "We got that from more than one Republican."

Retirement benefits proved to be the sticking point when the contract was rejected in July, with the vote split down party line. Republican members who supported the contract at the subcommittee level rescinded that support at the full meeting of the RTM.

"I think it is unusual that many people would support a contract in committee and then turn around and change their mind in a few days," Flatto said.

Many want to see newly hired firefighters switched over from a defined benefit plan, or a traditional pension plan), to a 401K-type plan, or defined contribution plan. In the rejected firefighters' contract, the language states the town may offer new hires the option of going into a 401K-type plan. But the RTM majority felt that was not good enough.

While the contract did not dictate that new hires would be obligated to have a defined contribution plan, firefighters felt there were more than enough concessions made to merit approval. For one, proposed sick days were reduced from 30 to 12.

"That's a huge concession," said Chavenello, who has worked for the Fire Department for 32 years.\

The previous fire contract had a 3 percent raise in each of the three years. In the rejected contract, there was no raise in the first year, a 2.5 percent raise the second year and a 2.75 percent raise in the third. Also, the insurance cost share was raised and co-pays for things like doctor visits, hospital visits and prescription drugs, etc., doubled or more than doubled.

Chavenello felt what the firefighters agreed to was more than fair.

"I think that the firefighters as a group recognized that it's difficult economic times," said Chavenello. "And they were willing to make concessions to the town realizing how difficult the times were, but apparently there were RTM members that didn't believe these concessions went far enough."

Chavenello believes the RTM's rejection of the contract was politically driven, not issue driven.

RTM Majority Leader Jamie Millington, a Republican, has said the pact was rejected because Flatto, a democrat, did not provide requested financial data regarding the difference between keeping new hires on a pension plan and switching them over to a 401K retirement plan.

"That was just a smokescreen for turning it down," Chavenello said. "The Republicans were trying to make the first selectman look bad.

Flatto told the Fairfield Citizen that every piece of information RTM members asked for at the committee level was provided to them. However, he added, it would have been impossible to predict the cost of the defined contribution plan, because under the rejected contract, there was an option, not a mandate, for the firefighters to join such a plan, and "it depends how many people join it."

Chavenello said if new hires from a certain date were relegated to a defined contribution plan, rather than a defined benefit plan, it may end up being more costly for the town because firefighters today do not have Social Security benefits, and if they lost their traditional pension, the town will have to pay 7 percent of firefighters' salaries for those benefits.

"It doesn't look to be any cheaper," said Chavenello, who added that the town has been lucky it hasn't had to contribute to the firefighter pension fund in nearly a decade, as it is more than 100 percent funded.

"If a town has a substantially underfunded pension liability, then in fact it may be cheaper to put employees into a 401K type plan, as opposed to a traditional pension," Chavenello said. "But the town went 9 years without contributing a single penny to the police and fire pension."

The rejected contract also provided for a pension reduction when a firefighter retires - from 80 percent to 75 percent.

Chavenello said he and other firefighters are disappointed the Republican membership of the RTM elected to use them as political pawns. "This is our livelihood," he said. "Everybody feels slighted."

Chavenello said his biggest fear about contract arbitration is the fact both sides lose control over the process.

"The arbitrator's ruling is mandatory," he said. "The town -- via the RTM -- can turn down the ruling once by majority vote, but after that, the final ruling is binding on both sides."

If arbitration takes place, Smith said, a ruling won't likely be made for at least six months. Until then, firefighters' co-pays for medical visits will be cheaper, as the existing fees remain in effect until a new contract is approved. However, the longer they go without a new contract, the longer it will be before they see that pay raise in the second year.