A different mayor, a different opinion

I received an interesting call this past week from the mayor about the yet-to-be-ratified concession deal negotiated between New London firefighters and the city administration. The gist of the call was that New London is going in the opposite direction of just about everyone else in seeking to move firefighters from a 401 plan to a defined benefit pension plan.

Oh, the mayor making that point wasn't the New London mayor, but the mayor of Ledyard, John Rodolico.

"It's unheard of for a municipality to be going to that system," Mayor Rodolico told me.

Unlike New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, Rodolico's first few months in office have been without controversy. A budget passed without a tax increase. He has improved communications by better utilizing new technology, meeting daily with staff and regularly with council. Rodolico even resolved the Jazzercise controversy, arbitrating an agreement that moved its classes from the Senior Center to the former Gales Ferry School.

Maybe Mayor Rodolico, a Republican, was feeling a bit of controversy envy and so decided to call me on a New London matter. And this certainly is a controversial one, with Mayor Finizio continuing to say significant layoffs will be necessary if the so far deadlocked council does not approve the concession deal.

The Ledyard mayor told me he doesn't get the deal. While New London might realize some short term savings through staff reductions - the concession package reduces staffing requirements and is expected to encourage several retirements - it will almost certainly end up costing more in the long run, said Rodolico.

Under the deal, New London firefighters would move into the Connecticut Municipal Employees Retirement System (CMERS). The city would be required to contribute the equivalent of about 15.3 percent of the gross pay for all the firefighters to CMERS annually, while the union kicks in 5 percent. But Mayor Rodolico said the city's contribution number is sure to grow. As was seen in the private sector, he noted, many governments are trying to move out of these fixed pension systems because they are unaffordable. This potential for increased costs to the city has persuaded the lone Republican on the New London council, Adam Sprecace, to oppose the deal, at least so far. Even a very generous 401 plan, with large matching contributions by a municipality, will prove more cost effective, Rodolico contended.

Five of Ledyard's seven municipal bargaining units have moved to 401 plans, said Rodolico. Interestingly, the two that remain in fixed pension plans are fire and police. The mayor declined to talk about the future of those contracts, saying that will be part of the negotiating process.

One problem with the Ledyard mayor's approach is that it is all dollars and cents. I would contend that 401 plans can work well for many occupations, the white-collar kind where people expect to work well into their 60s and have plenty of time to save, but they are a poor fit for public safety personnel.

Under the current retirement program, firefighters have no medical benefits until they are 65. They are not eligible for Social Security. And for many, their 401 savings are not terribly impressive yet. So they keep working. But does a city really want a firefighter north of 60 going into a burning building and attempting to throw someone on his shoulder? That presents safety issues, both for firefighters and the public they protect.

Speaking of safety, and injuries, CMERS covers workers' compensation, unlike the current agreement in which the city pays those costs.

One size may not fit all when it comes to pension systems. And while Mayor Rodolico's suggestion may be appreciated (though probably not), I don't think New London leaders should take it. The concession deal may need adjustments to satisfy a majority of councilors, but on balance it's a good one, and certainly better than layoffs that could compromise safety.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.


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