Police, Fire pension plans pass RTM with fireworks
Updated 3:28 pm, Friday, October 6, 2017
WESTPORT — Despite the pleas of officers, and of the heads of both the police and fire unions, the Representative Town Meeting voted to approve the hotly contested re-negotiated police and fire pension agreements.
“There are some people on the RTM who think we don’t do anything, but we have a very difficult job,” said Officer Scott Morrison, before directing the attention of RTM members to the back of the Town Hall auditorium, where a group of roughly 20 police officers stood, many of whom would speak out against the pension deal reached between the town and the police union that would see some reduction in the benefits received by police and fire personnel.
“This was shoved down our throats,” Morrison said. The plan — passed with 17 yes votes, six no votes and three abstentions for police and with 20 yes votes and four no votes for fire — is good through 2024 and would not affect officers on the force for 20 years or more as of July 1, 2017.
For those on the force less than 20 years, the minimum age of retirement would rise from 49 to 52 and reduce the Cost of Living Adjustment from 4 percent to 2.75 percent. For new hires, the retirement age would rise to 55 with 20 years experience and 60 with 10 years experience, with no COLA and single coverage health care, among other scale-backs.
According to the town’s negotiating attorney, Floyd Dugas, of Berchem Moses, Westport would save an estimated $22.3 million and $20 million on the police and fire plan, respectively, over 20 years. Over the same period, the town would save an estimated $18 million for police and $23 million for fire in Other Post-Employment Benefits .
Dugas said according to a Yankee Institute for Public Policy, Westport had the highest per-capita pension and OPEBs in the state.
“And not by a close margin,” Dugas said.
The police and fire unions still have the option of denying the plan, though they would have a limited amount of time to reach a new agreement with the town before a decision would be made in arbitration.
“Arbitration is a very unpredictable process, and often there are unintended consequences and results,” Dugas said.
Police and fire personnel expressed concerns the new plan would make it difficult to recruit new talent, and it would be increasingly difficult to retire on a reduced pension. Cpl. Howard Simpson, head of the police union, said police asked for no additional incentives in the plan, but were forced to concede more than was fair.
One officer, David Perez, who transferred to Westport from the West Haven Police Department, said he chose Westport, in part, because of the pension plan, and didn’t realize it could be taken away from him.
“In fact, I’m in the process of possibly leaving this department if this is what’s going to happen,” Perez said.
The previous plan was up for re-negotiation as of 2016.
Members of the RTM were seemingly split on the decision during the course of the meeting. The issue drew passionate responses from both sides.
Wendy Batteau, of District Eight, worried how the new plan would affect the lives of those that serve and protect the community, sharing a memory of Officer Morrison coming to her home to shoot a rabid raccoon stuck in her garage, and then shedding a tear.
“I was really moved,” Batteau said.
Others felt the compensation and pensions of officers in town were too high, and that the RTM had a responsibility to taxpayers to tighten the belt during a time of financial instability in the state.
“In point of fact, we have one of the highest paid police forces in Fairfield County, and in Connecticut,” said RTM District Four member Kristan Hamlin.
Even as a “yes” vote seemed all but settled, members of the RTM still wavered.
“I believe this is on the police force to make your call on this. If you don’t like it, you should vote no. And then we negotiate some more,” said RTM District One member Matthew Mandell. “I don’t think this is the best deal for you guys. But our position has to be strong.”