Independent counsel will investigate the matters concerning last-minute firefighter promotions and the financial impact on the police and fire pension fund, First Selectman Michael Tetreau told the Board of Finance Tuesday.
Last week, the Board of Selectmen questioned Fire Chief Richard Felner about a number of firefighters being promoted to the ranks of training officer, lieutenant, and chief only to retire weeks or days later, boosting the salary their pension is based on.
Selectman Kevin Kiley reported that these promotions -- some of them provisional, or temporary -- may cost the town as much as $1.8 million over 30 years in pension contributions.
Though fire and police personnel pay into their pensions, Fairfield has had to contribute to the town and police and fire pension funds for the past several years after not having to fund them for an approximately 10-year period, Board of Finance Chair Tom Flynn said.
The Madoff scandal of 2008 didn't help, but the town was "on the slope to contributing anyway," Flynn said. In fact, at the finance board's December meeting, the board was advised that the town would have to increase the coming fiscal year budget by $3.7 million to properly fund the pension and insurance accounts for town, police, and fire personnel, Flynn said.
Flynn was alerted to the promotions via an anonymous letter delivered just before Christmas.
The writer only identified him or herself as someone covered by the fire and police pension fund, Flynn said. The note was "very disturbing, because it was quite specific and very accusatory," he added.
After requesting information from the Department of Human Resources that revealed "a fact pattern that lent credibility to what the letter said," Flynn said he decided to pass on the letter to Tetreau and the Board of Finance to review.
A report on the matter from independent counsel should be available within 30 days after an attorney is chosen, Tetreau said. The latter decision is expected to be made in a few days.
Chief Felner told the board he knows what the outcome of the report will be.
"We have to hire independent counsel to tell us what we need to do -- we know what we need to do: change the contract," he said.
According to the firefighters contract -- which expires on June 30,2013 and will be undergoing negotiations in the coming months -- high-ranking vacancies like chief or lieutenant are filled by the senior man in the rank below.
That employee may then choose to retire at the promoted rank and increased salary, regardless of how long he held the position and if the promotion was provisional or permanent.
Felner said he has done nothing more than follow the contract when he moves up firefighters to fill vacancies to meet the pact's minimum manpower clause.
"It's my responsibility to make sure our residents are safe and taken care of and our firefighters go home safe every night," he said. "There's nothing in this for me. If you don't think I am doing my job and I'm wasting the town's time, I will step down."
Finance Board Vice Chair Rob Bellitto pointed out that when the contract was last up for negotiation in 2010, a proposal was made to change that clause so a firefighter would have to hold a higher position for one year before he could retire at that rank and salary. The union rejected the proposal, Bellitto said, and it was not included in the three items that were agreed upon for arbitration.
Whether the current practice can be discontinued between now and the ratification of a new contract will be reviewed by counsel, according to Tetreau.
The discussion will be continued at Thursday's Fire Commission meeting, which is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the first floor conference room of Sullivan Independence Hall.