NAUGATUCK — The Naugatuck Fire Department’s new deputy chief is a familiar face in the halls of the headquarters downtown.
The Board of Mayor and Burgesses last week approved a five-year contract with Paul Russell making him deputy chief.
Russell, a Naugatuck native, has worked for the fire department for 26 years, most recently as second assistant chief.
“It’s a great job. The thing I like about it, besides being able to help people, is that every day is different. You never know what you are walking into that day,” Russell said.
As part of the transition, Russell officially retired from the department on Sunday and started as deputy chief, a non-union position, on Monday. The move means Russell will earn a salary as deputy chief while also drawing a pension.
Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess said he was in favor of hiring Russell because “he has an extensive history with the department, his knowledge of the town, and is clearly the best person to help the chief manage the department, especially given the fact we have a very high turnover now.”
The fire department has experienced turnover over recent years due to contract changes that waived traditional pension plans and moved new hires to defined contribution retirement plans, similar to a 401(K) in the private sector. New hires also cannot pay into Social Security.
The changes are intended to save the borough money in the long run but led to some firefighters leaving for other departments that still offer traditional defined benefit pension plans.
The department has also been dealing with retirements of firefighters with more than 20 years of experience.
Russell said he already planned to retire prior to July but is pleased to continue working with the department.
“I love the Naugatuck Fire Department. I love working with the people. I love working for the town. I think I have the best job in the whole world,” Russell said.
Hess said Russell’s experience makes him uniquely qualified to be deputy chief.
“We have a very young department and we need someone with experience to help guide them. Paul Russell has the ability to do that. He knows everything there is to know about being a firefighter, all of the intricacies, knowledge of the town, he lives in town. In my opinion he is the best candidate for the position,” Hess said.
Fire Chief Ellen Murray echoed Hess’ sentiments. She summed up her feelings about Russell’s hire in one word, “Thrilled.”
While Russell will earn a salary and a pension in his new role, borough officials estimated hiring him will save over $200,000 over the life of the contract.
As deputy chief, Russell will be paid $65,000 in the first year of the contract. His salary will increase incrementally to $72,450 in the fifth year. He earned $72,404 a year as second assistant chief.
According to a cost estimate provided by the borough, officials estimated the salary for an outside candidate to be about $72,000 in the first year and increase to about $78,000 in the fifth year.
The borough also won’t have to pay for medical and dental insurance for Russell, since he gets health coverage as part of his retirement benefits.
The estimated cost for an outside candidate’s health insurance was nearly $160,000 over the five years of the contract.
Russell’s pension and retirement benefits weren’t factored into the estimated savings. Since he planned to retire, the borough would have had to pay it if he wasn’t hired as deputy chief. What Russell will receive from his pension a year wasn’t available as of Tuesday.
The vote to approve Russell’s contract wasn’t unanimous. Deputy Mayor Robert Neth and Burgess Donald Wisniewski voted against the proposal, while Burgess Laurie Taf Jackson abstained.
Neth said his vote wasn’t against Russell but rather against hiring someone who is receiving a pension.
“Paul is a fantastic person and I think he will do a fantastic job because he knows the people there. I am opposed to it because I am not a big fan of retiring people on a pension and then, again, putting them into a good position in town,” Neth said.
Neth said he understands the reasoning for hiring Russell but thinks the borough shouldn’t engage in the practice of hiring retired employees.
“It is a philosophy that I have that I stick by. That’s just the way it is,” Neth said.
Burgess Patrick Scully said the borough has hired other employees, including the police chief and fire chief, which were receiving pensions from other municipalities.
“Everybody is coming in here with pensions. Why should we go to Cheshire, Middlebury, Wolcott, Chicago to bring in a fire chief that is retired and collecting a pension and not help our own? We should help our own people,” Scully said.
Hess felt Russell is the right person for the job.
“I understand the argument to the contrary, but in this case, in my judgement, the borough of Naugatuck is going to be much better served by having Paul Russell here, and we are going to save money,” Hess said.