Selectmen scrutinize smoldering firefighter retirement flap
Updated 2:02 pm, Wednesday, July 3, 2013
More than six months after controversy flared over firefighter pensions that ballooned because of late promotions before retirement, the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday reviewed the provisional promotions and a lateral transfer that triggered the flap.
A report by Alex Trembicki, the lawyer hired to probe the controversy, found no evidence that Fire Chief Richard Felner made any deals with the firefighters involved, but it also pointed out that in some cases, the Fire Commission did not fulfill its obligations under the union contract and the town charter.
But what most bothered the selectmen is that these changes were made knowing that, in some cases, retirement was imminent.
Felner transferred Assistant Chief Chris Tracy from the training center to the line because he said he wanted Tracy to have that experience. He then transferred Assistant Chief Doug Chavenello to the training center, but Chavenello retired a short time later. Felner than moved Assistant Chief Steve Curry to the training center job. Curry, however, retired when Tracy filed a grievance over the transfer. The switch to the training boosted the pensions of both Chavenello and Curry.
Trembicki's report states that it was well known that Chavenello was planning to retire. According to Felner, that retirement was supposed to happen in April, but because of personal reasons, took place sooner.
Even if Chavenello stayed until April, Selectman Cristin McCarthy Vahey questioned why he was transferred for what would still have only been a few months at the training center.
Selectman Kevin Kiley said the nine recent retirements in the Fire Department cost the town about $2 million. However, First Selectman Michael Tetreau referred to a letter from the town's actuary, Hooker & Holcomb, that said taking into account the overall impact of the retirements on payroll, they will cost the town a net $197,000.
But, Tetreau said, the entire issue "leaves a bad taste in everybody's mouth ... I think this is not the greatest experience for the Fire Department, the Fire Commission, or our town."
Felner, for his part, told the selectmen, that the Fire Commission members "were aware of it. They were all aware of it."
The chief also contended that several of the firefighters who retired saved the town money because they stayed with the department long after they were eligible to retire, saving in pension payouts.
As a result of the controversy, the Fire Commission earlier this year voted to have all promotions and transfers, whether permanent or provisional, brought to the commission for approval. Felner contends the commission was informed of all such actions, though Trembicki said there is no indication in Fire Commission minutes that any votes were ever taken.
He said under the charter, it is the commission's responsibility to approve all transfers and promotions.
The commission has also recommended that Tetreau, while in negotiations for the new firefighter union contract, work toward getting a new way of calculating retirement benefits. Under the current contract, pensions are based on the salary a firefighter is paid on the day of retirement. In other municipalities, pensions are calculated on an average of the firefighter's salary.