Fire Department Pension Controversy
The allegations, investigation and conclusion
Anonymous letter submitted
Last December, an anonymous letter was written to the Board of Finance Chairman Thomas Flynn. This letter questioned possible unethical procedures being used at the Fire Department involving a short-term spiking of base salaries before a member of the department retires, adding up to $10,000 to each retiree’s annual pension. This letter sparked controversy when officials learned that firefighters were being promoted or transferred shortly before their retirement, therefore boosting their salaries and increasing their pension benefits, even though some had served in their new positions, very briefly.
The anonymous letter of complaint which prompted this investigation questioned the possibility that secret agreements were being made between various members of the Fire Department and the Fire Chief to make promotions shortly before their intended retirement, in order to enhance their pension benefits.
Selectman Kevin Kiley had concerns these promotions over transfers in the past year could cost the town an additional $1.8 million in combined pension payouts. Additionally, the increase could cost the firefighter/police pension fund as much as $1.86 million over a 30 year period.
Kiley produced a spread sheet which showed that out of the eight fire-fighters who retired in 2012, six had received promotions only days or weeks before they announced their retirement and one was promoted just 5 months prior.
Trembicki noted ‘based upon the records received from the Towns Human Resources Dept., ‘there were 14 retirements from the fire dept. from June 30, 2010 to January 25, 2013. Of that group four of nine were made Provisional Lieutenant a short time prior to their announced retirements. Three of the nine were promoted to Provisional Assistant Chief and retired shortly thereafter. The remaining two were laterally transferred.’
The Commission immediately halted all provisional appointments for 30 days and Attorney Alex Trembicki (who’s findings are quoted throughout) was hired as independent counsel by First Selectman Michael Tetreau, ‘to investigate any and all issues surrounding the retirement policies and procedures of the Fairfield Fire Department, including whether the same have been implemented in accordance with the Town of Fairfield Charter and Collective Bargaining Agreement between the town of Fairfield and Local 1426 International Assoc of Firefighters. Included within the foregoing investigation is to determine whether or not the resources of the town and its pension plan have been misappropriated or improperly paid’.
In reports to the selectmen, the Board of Finance and the Fire Commission about the issue, Fire Chief Richard Felner said he was unaware that the firefighters had been planning to retire just after they were promoted. He said promotions were made in some cases to fill vacancies created by retirements or job transfers. Under the firefighters union contract, if there is no list for promotions, provisional or temporary, vacancies are filled by promoting the most senior firefighter.
The Pension Plan
‘Under the applicable provisions of the pension plan any retirement is required to be submitted one month in advance of the first month for which benefits are payable. In the cases of the retirements at issue, this provision was not followed. While this may have delayed the payment of benefits, the ultimate outcome would not have changed’.
‘There were discretionary management decisions made by the Chief that were not required by contract, resulting in increased benefits for the parties involved. Everyone involved understood what was happening. The Chief advised that all these actions were reported to the Fire Commission; however their minutes are devoid of any reference to these activities’. Trembicki further concludes to some degree ‘this was a unique confluence of events which culminated in these retirements. There was a population of firefighters who became eligible to retire at the same time. Technically, the provisional appointments complied with the verbiage in the contract. However, but for the Chief’s voluntary management decisions these events would not have occurred.’
For more information please visit www.fairfieldct.org.