Cost of state pension plan gives councilor second thoughts

New London - Before being elected to the City Council for the first time in November, Marie Friess-McSparran promised to help firefighters join the state's retirement plan.

"I would totally support and work to help Local 1522 enter the state CMERS retirement plan,'' Friess-McSparran said when asked by the union in a questionnaire prior to the election.

But Monday night, Friess-McSparran was one of three city councilors who refused to ratify a contract that would have allowed the firefighters to join the Connecticut Municipal Employees Retirement System.

The union endorsed Friess-McSparran partially because of her answer to that question, union President Rocco Basilica said.

"It was a lie,'' he said Tuesday. "People are not keeping their word.''

Friess-McSparran said Tuesday that she agonized over her vote, but she had to look at the bigger picture and how such a move would affect taxpayers.

"It doesn't say I would support them and dump the bill on the taxpayers,'' she said. "I support their desire to go into CMERS system, but I can't with a budget increase and a possible water rate increase and a general recession. I can't put this bill on the backs of taxpayers. I can't do it."

Although the agreement has not been made public - city officials contend it is part of contract and union negotiations and is protected from disclosure under Freedom of Information laws - some of the details were made public at Monday's City Council meeting. The Day on Tuesday filed an FOI request for a copy of the document.

Friess-McSparran said the city would have to bond, or borrow, $4 million to invest in CMERS for the firefighters. The cost of bonding over 20 years would be "at a minimum of $15 million."

But Finance Director Jeff Smith said interest rates are at a historical low, so the cost would be much less. If firefighters were in the state retirement program, Smith estimates, it would cost the city about $700,000, including principal and interest and an annual contribution. Those costs would be offset, he said, by the union concessions, which include a reduction in minimum staffing levels that would save $450,000 in overtime. Firefighters also agreed to forgo two raises, which would save about $163,000. There would be an additional $120,000 from retirements.

"These are our best estimates," Smith said. "It could be more or it could be less."

Councilors Adam Sprecace and John Maynard also voted against the amended contract. Basilica said Sprecace was endorsed by the union but he was unable to find the councilor's questionnaire. Maynard entered the race late and was not interviewed or endorsed by the union, Basilica said.

Twenty-five fighters will lose their jobs if the city does not come up with more than $500,000 in savings. The administration and the union negotiated the agreement, which both sides expected the City Council to approve Monday night.

Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio has delayed the layoffs until July 17 so the council can discuss the agreement again at its July 16 meeting.


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