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Saturday, May 27, 2017

For Police and Fire, Pension Uncertainty Forces Early Retirement

By James Lomuscio

Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas says the recently signed work contract between the town and the police union is “a fair contract to the town, the union and the employees.”

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Westport police officers march in the 2015 Memorial Day parade. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) WestportNow.com photo

The four-year collective bargaining agreement, which is retroactive to last year and provides for 2.25 to 2.5 percent increases through Fiscal year 2019-20, is scheduled to go before the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) for approval Tuesday June, 6.

The town’s police have been without a work contract for more than a year, and the police union’s pension contract is still in negotiation with the town.

“I hope we reach a similar middle ground with the pension contract,” Koskinas said.

He underscored what could happen if the officers’ new pension contract forced them to go from defined benefits to defined contributions.

“There is a major concern that we could not only lose senior members of the department, but younger officers with not a lot of time who would seek out other departments with defined benefits,” Koskinas said.

He pointed to the town’s Fire Department which currently has 11 firefighters retiring due to uncertainty about their pension contract. The matter has been in state-mandated binding arbitration since February.

“A lot of them have been here a long time, and a lot of them are concerned about the outcome of the arbitration award, and they’ve decided to leave under the current system,” said Ralph M. Chetcuti, the town’s personnel and human resources director.

Chetcuti said of the fire pension negotiations, “We have put in our last best offer.”

“The union is looking for improvements, and the town is looking to make it more realistic because they are very generous benefits,” he said. “They (firefighters) want to keep what they have.”

The town wants current employees, not just new hires, to make defined contributions. And therein lies the rub for both the police and fire unions.

“As a taxpayer, I fully understand the need to ask new employees to make defined contributions,” Koskinas said, “but these are employees who came here with the understanding of defined benefits.”

He said that while police officers are not yet in the same quandary as the firefighters — and there are been no retirements due to pensions to date — it could happen in the near future.

“We haven’t reached the same level as they have, but four or five months ago the Fire Department did not have people putting in for retirement either,” Koskinas said.

“We never disagreed that there needed to be a change with new hires coming in,” said Fire Inspector Nick Marsan, president of Local 1081, International Association of Fire Fighters. “We wanted to maintain our benefits for the members here already.

“The reality of it is our pension is based on base salary,” he added. “I do not pay into Social Security. In exchange, we come in with the idea that we have defined benefits. That’s the agreement we made with the town when we came in for service.”

Marsan said that on more than one occasion he explained to the town that there would be “a significant personnel loss” in the 64-member department if the pension contract changed.

“And it’s going to cost money because you have to hire new people,” he said.

Fire Chief Rob Yost and the head of the police union were not immediately available for comment.

This story has been updated with comments from the fire union head.

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Posted 05/27/17 at 09:50 AM  Permalink



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