Police, fire pensions likely to be a hot-button issue in the year to come
Updated 3:30 pm, Friday, December 8, 2017
WESTPORT — One of the most confusing topics in town government is undoubtedly public employee pensions, especially when they’re in the process of negotiations.
In 2016, the police and fire departments pension plans came up for negotiation, and a deal has yet to be decided for either department despite over a year of work to settle the new pension agreements.
At the Oct. 6, 2017 Representative Town Meeting (RTM) meeting, the town’s primary legislative body passed a plan for both the police and fire departments that would be good through 2024 and not affect officers on the force for 20 years or more as of July 1, 2017.
Meanwhile, the minimum age of retirement would rise from 49 to 52 for those on the force less than 20 years and the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) would decrease from 4 percent to 2.75 percent. 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, in addition to other scale-backs.
Just because the RTM passed the proposed new pension plans didn’t mean the game was over, however, as both departments unions had to approve the plans in order to move forward toward finalizing a new agreement.
At the end of October, the police union rejected the RTM-approved pension agreement.
“Obviously we rejected it. It was not a negotiation,” Officer Scott Morrison, a member of Westport Police Local #2080, said adding the decision was motivated by a desire to return to arbitration to garner a better deal for the department.
“The first thing an arbitrator will look at is the ability to pay. Westport has no problem paying.”
Floyd Dugas, the town’s negotiating attorney, believes otherwise. Dugas, an attorney with Berchem Moses, said Westport has the highest per-capita pension and Other Post-Employment Benefits according to the Yankee Institute of Public Policy.
Nonetheless, Morrison insists, “The majority of towns leave their current members alone and that’s literally all we’ve asked for. The people that are here, leave their pensions alone. You’ll know what the endgame is in terms of what you have to pay out. The new hires, they can restructure that going forward forever. That will be a very significant savings.”
In Connecticut, if municipalities can’t reach agreements with public sector unions, the parties go to mandatory binding arbitration, Dugas explained, and said arbitration hearings for the police pensions are close to completion and may be put on hold to pursue a settlement agreement instead.
Meanwhile, in regards to the fire department pensions, Dugas said, “The case is done and we’re at the point where the case is in the hands of the arbitrators.”
Unlike the police union, the fire union — Local 1081 International Association of Firefighters — didn’t vote to reject the RTM-approve pension plan. Still, fire department union President Nick Marsan said the RTM-approved plan was brought to his firefighter union membership, but that the body could not vote on it because the union’s bylaws state the union can’t vote on a contract without a fully drafted contract to review and vote on.
Westport’s Human Resources Director Ralph Chetcuti said his office is in the process of getting the fire union a completed version of the pension plan that the union can vote on.
Going forward, Marsan said he hopes his union can agree on a fair deal with the town. “We provide a lifetime of service to the town with the understanding that in exchange for that substantial contribution of our own we will receive a small pension going forward to retirement. We give up the potential for wealth with the promise of security,” Marsan said.