Town officials are investigating a practice conducted within the Fairfield Fire Department that may cost the town's pension fund as much as $1.86 million over 30 years.
First Selectman Michael Tetreau revealed at Wednesday's Board of Selectmen meeting that the town would be looking into firefighters receiving last-minute promotions before retiring, which changes the salaries their pensions are based on.
The issue was brought to the attention of Board of Finance Chair Thomas Flynn, who received an anonymous letter from someone believed to be a member of either the fire or police department. Flynn informed other town officials, including the First Selectman.
Fire Chief Richard Felner told the selectmen he's following the firefighters contract when he makes these promotions -- some of them provisional, or temporary.
"I go by the contract. I don't control it," Felner said. "I was told by this administration, the previous administration, and the previous administration before that, 'Follow the contract, we don't want any problems'."
Felner referred to a clause in the contract that mandates how vacancies are filled. When the department has an opening at the officer, lieutenant, or assistant chief level, the senior man in the rank below has the contractual right to move into the open position.
Then, if that employee so chooses, he may retire at the higher level -- bumping the salary his pension is based on.
Selectman Kevin Kiley provided information from the Human Resource Department that showed in the past two years, 10 firefighters have retired -- seven of whom were promoted shortly before their retirements. Of those seven, one retired as soon as four days after his promotion. The rest ranged from six days to five months after.
Kiley went on to show the financial implications of these promotions -- over 30 years, they could cost the town's pension fund nearly $2 million: $1,864,606.
"There were management decisions made that changed people's positions for as little as four days, that obligated the town of Fairfield to pay nearly $2 million over 30 years," Kiley said.
"I don't get how a $2 million increase in pension funds is good for the town and the taxpayers.... I'm still asking myself, was it a good decision? And I don't know who can answer that," Kiley continued.
Felner countered that he doesn't always know when firefighters intend to retire, as they have no obligation to tell him. They just have to talk to the Human Resources Department, the chief said.
"If you want to change [the contract], get it into arbitration," Felner continued. "I've been a good manager. I follow the rules."
He added that all promotions are discussed with the Fire Commission in executive sessions.
Fire Commission Chair Richard Popilowski stepped in to tell the board that the Fire Commission never received the anonymous letter sent to Flynn, and that the board's questioning of Felner "seems to be a little bit like an attack."
"We hire the chief, we can only discipline and fire the chief. You're stepping over your bounds," Popilowski said.
Popilowski added that he preferred the selectmen discuss the issue in a joint meeting with the commission, which the board agreed was a good idea. The Board of Finance will also be discussing this at its Jan. 8 meeting.