Preston selectmen, finance board in dispute over proposed employee retirement plan

Preston — A dispute between the boards of selectmen and finance over how to handle a request to add seven non-union school employees to the town employees' retirement system could end up in court.

The Board of Finance voted Wednesday to ask the board's attorney to seek a court order mandating the Board of Selectmen refer the request to the Board of Finance for review and recommendation before scheduling a town meeting on the request.

The Board of Selectmen voted last week to schedule the town meeting without referring the issue to the Board of Finance. Selectmen plan to set the town meeting date at their Aug. 24 meeting after receiving legal wording for the town meeting notice from the town attorney.

First Selectman Robert Congdon has recused himself from the discussion and votes on the issue because his wife, Linda Congdon, is one of the school employees who would join the retirement plan.

The Board of Education in June voted to seek town approval to allow seven school employees — three central office executive assistants, two school nurses, the transportation coordinator and buildings and grounds supervisor — to join the Municipal Employees' Retirement System, called MERS.

The retirement system currently covers 18 town employees, who joined it in 1990. In the program, the employees contribute 2.25 percent of their pay into the system, while the town pays 11.8 percent.

If the town meeting approves the request, the Board of Education would pay this year's contribution, totaling $64,227, Oct. 1 from its current budget, and employees would pay their share.

The dispute centers on the town's payment for past years' service for the seven employees, calculated at $780,897, Board of Finance Chairman Norman Gauthier said. He argued that the back years' contributions should be considered a financial appropriation, which should be referred to the finance board by state statute.

“The issue we're having is strictly a procedural issue,” Gauthier said. “The Board of Finance believes the $780,000 payment for prior years is an appropriation.”

The Board of Finance voted Wednesday to ask attorney Kari Olson to seek a court order that the selectmen must refer the proposed financial appropriation to the Board of Finance before scheduling the town meeting.

Gloria Homski, the school central office executive assistant and a prospective retirement plan member, attended Wednesday's Board of Finance meeting and objected to the board's stance. Homski, a 15-year employee, said she was frustrated that the finance board's position could delay the effort to join the retirement plan. The employees made the request to join the system 2½ years ago, she said.

She said she told the Board of Finance it could be considered an unfair labor practice if the town allowed one group of employees to join the retirement plan and denied it to another group.

“We're just trying to be treated as the professionals we are,” Homski said Thursday, “the same as the professionals at the town.”

She also rejected Gauthier's argument that it should be considered an appropriation. She said the back payments would not be incurred for another two budget years, after the parties negotiate the amount owed for prior years of service.

According to minutes of the Board of Selectmen's Aug. 10 meeting, Selectman Michael Sinko said the state statute governing the retirement system requires only that it be approved at a town meeting. He added that Board of Finance members would have the opportunity to discuss the issue at the town meeting, along with other residents. Selectman Lynwood Crary agreed with that position.

Sinko said the request involves an agreement by the town to give employees a retirement pension for the work they have done for the town.

c.bessette@theday.com

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