Firefighters leaving over retirement concerns

NAUGATUCK — A change in retirement plans is being pointed to as the catalyst for an exodus of firefighters from the Naugatuck Fire Department.

The trend was a topic of discussion among the Board of Mayor and Burgesses Tuesday night.

Deputy Mayor Tamath Rossi said the fire department is expecting to lose up to five firefighters. Rossi, who is the burgess liaison to the fire department, read from a report submitted by Fire Chief Ken Hanks detailing the situation.

“In the past few weeks three firefighters have accepted conditional job offers from other fire departments in Connecticut, in Meriden, Wilton and East Hartford. Two others are expecting offers, one of which is from a fire department in South Carolina,” Hanks wrote in the report.

Over the past few years, the borough has negotiated a change in retirement plans for all new municipal employees. All new municipal employees are now offered defined contribution retirement plans, similar to a 401 (K) in the private sector, rather than defined benefit pension plans. Under the defined contribution retirement plans, the employee and the employer contribute to the employee’s retirement. The change was made in order to save the borough money in the long term.

Many career fire departments around the state still offer the traditional pension plan, in which the municipality provides the entire cost of the pension after 20 or 25 years with the department.

All five firefighters that announced they plan to leave were hired since 2012, after the new retirement plan for the department went into effect, Hanks said following the meeting. Hanks said the firefighters who are leaving have told him it is because of a lack of a pension system and they can’t pay into Social Security.

“Even if they have an outside job with earnings through Social Security, they lose 60 percent of that under federal law. So there is no retirement benefits for firefighters,” Hanks said.

Hanks said he expects this trend of newly hired firefighters leaving to continue due to retirement concerns. He said there are other departments, such as Southington, that allow firefighters to pay into Social Security, but it is not very common. Other departments typically have traditional pension systems to offer firefighters.

“The firefighters are looking at it that at 50 years old, their bodies are worn out and they’d like to retire. As it is now, with the current system, they have [to work until age] 59.5,” Hanks said.

Hanks said the department will be down eight members due the five firefighters leaving and three more retiring after 25 years of service.

The board approved three firefighter retirements — Lt. Glen R. Noll, firefighter/assistant mechanic James Ricci Jr. and firefighter Leonard F. Patterson. They all worked 25 years for the Naugatuck Fire Department. Noll will be paid an annual pension of $77,460; Ricci will be paid an annual pension of $80,564; and Patterson will be paid an annual pension of $72,495. They were hired under the former pension plans.

Two firefighters have been hired, with one starting in September and one starting in January, Hanks said.

“This leaves six open positions for a year, all backfilled on overtime. One year of overtime backfill is $87,556,” Hanks said in his report.

The department usually operates with 41 firefighters.

Rossi said the fire department requested an additional two firefighters positions in the budget to offset the losses. However, the borough chose not to fill those positions or put money in the budget for the overtime created by those losses, she said.

“So we are going to have a shortfall in the budget,” Rossi said.

Hanks added having so many firefighters choosing to move to other fire departments is damaging to morale.

“Firefighting is a cohesive team sport, for a lack of a better term. When you’re having 25 percent of personnel turnover in one year that does not lead to good teamwork,” Hanks said.

Hanks said it’s disheartening to know when a new hire joins the department he or she will not be there for an entire career.

“You figure a kid is going to come in when hired and we know he is not going to stay now. He’s going to come in and leave,” Hanks said.

Hanks said the department is trying to lessen the requirements placed on new hires in order to help fill vacancies.

“We are negotiating with the union to ease up some of the training restrictions and not send them to the fire academy,” Hanks said.

The Republican-American contributed to this article.