New contracts approved this week for Fire Chief Brian Rooney and Police Chief Joseph Gaudett allow them to collect their pensions while remaining in their jobs. The contracts, approved by the entire City Council on Monday, allow the chiefs to begin collecting pensions under the new plans, which took effect following the expiration date of their previous contracts.
For Rooney, that date was May 24, 2011, and for Gaudett, it was Dec. 20, 2010. This essentially means both men apparently may be owed months of back pension payments since Rooney requested his line of duty pension on Wednesday, while Gaudett has yet to file any request.
“We have to work out the payment situation,” Associate City Attorney John Mitola told the Fire Commission at their meeting Wednesday. He could not say whether Rooney would receive a lump sum for the back pension payments or receive the money in installments. Nor was the annual amount of the pension disclosed.
Rooney and Gaudett’s contracts state the chiefs will be enrolled in a national ICMA retirement system as of the dates their new contracts began. This new system will require the city to contribute 10 percent of their salaries to each of their retirement plans, which is more than they currently contribute under their existing pension plans.
So, not only will the men be owed money under their existing pension, but they will owe money to the city under their new pension systems.
Rooney and Gaudett will continue to receive the same salary — both are paid more than $128,000 annually — the same medical benefits, five weeks vacation, three personal days and $100,000 in life insurance benefits. Under the ICMA system, both will be eligible to defer taxation on their retirement savings as well.
The city declined to explain the reasons for the pension changes or how the changes would be carried out. The Fire Commission approved Rooney’s pension request with very few questions or discussion.
“The chief has certainly earned it,” said Stuart Rosenberg, chairman and member of the commission for more than 20 years, “but we haven’t really done a pension when it was retroactive.”
Mitola urged the commission to approve the pension request right away with the promise of obtaining a legal opinion explaining the legal reasons why it was an appropriate and legal request and action after the fact.
“We are confident this is legal,” he said, “but we will put something on paper for you.”
To this, Robert Whitbread, fire union president, asked: “What if it turns out to be illegal?” He said firefighters have been asking him whether it is the department’s new policy to allow for retroactive pensions.
Donald Day, a retired Bridgeport fire captain, said Rooney’s request raises questions. When Day retired in 2001 due to his disability, he said in an interview Thursday, he was asked to produce a letter from his doctor stating his disability precluded him from working. Only then was he granted the disability pension, which he said is not taxed.
“It’s disingenuous on the part of the chief to get a disability pension when he doesn’t deserve it,” Day said. “If his hypertension was so bad he should get a disability pension then he shouldn’t be on the job.”
City officials later said that Rooney initially requested a disability pension under the mistaken impression he would be protecting his future right to file for worker’s compensation, but then verbally amended his request and was awarded a regular pension.
Mitola said it’s not uncommon for fire chiefs to retire from a city, collect their pension and then work for a different city and collect a salary there. When asked if an individual had ever remained in the same position while collecting a pension, neither Rooney nor Mitola could cite an example.
“I’ve heard similar things happen before, but it is not very common,” said New Canaan Police Chief Edward Nadriczny, Fairfield County president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, adding that his town doesn’t allow him to collect a pension while on the job.
He said that in 2010, Milford allowed Police Chief Keith Mello to retire and then re-hired him the next day.
Although Mello was allowed to collect more than $100,000 in unused sick and vacation time, his pension is frozen at its current level, except for cost of living increases. He is also no longer entitled to retirement benefits, can’t accumulate sick time for another cash payout, will accrue sick time at a reduced rate and would have to pay higher co-pays and reduced coverage.
Rooney’s contract also fixes his health care costs permanently at 25 percent. Gaudett’s contract has a clause that states he waives his claim for accrued overtime as deputy chief in the police department.
It also states he “agrees to accept the buyout of his accrued vacation and sick time in two equal installments, one in calendar year 2011 and the other in calendar year 2012, waiving all claims for interest.” It is not clear what that means, and the city declined to elaborate or explain the statement.