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Conn. council approves firefighter contract despite retirees' objections

The issue was whether department retirees can keep their existing doctors or be forced out of network and pay more


By Robert Koch
The Hour

NORWALK, Conn. — Retired firefighters left City Hall disheartened Tuesday evening after the Common Council approved a new four-year contract for active members of the Norwalk Fire Department.

At issue was whether department retirees -- roughly 2,000 people -- can keep their existing doctors or be forced out of network and pay more if the city shifts them and active firefighters to the state health insurance plan known as Partnership 2.0.

"This is the first we've heard about this," retiree Michael Shannahan, who served in the department for 22 years, said after the council meeting at City Hall. "To me, it's a change of our negotiated retirement benefits. This comes out the blue, really, it shouldn't have happened. The union screwed up, the city screwed up, everyone screwed up. It's disheartening."

Mayor Harry Rilling said afterward he would arrange for the city to hold sessions to inform active and retired firefighters and police officers about the state insurance plan. He added he would explore whether retirees can opt out of the plan.

"I'm not so sure that's not possible, and I'd like to explore that possibility," said Rilling, the city's former police chief. "But we will do whatever we can to work with the retirees, to meet with them."

The council voted 11-0 to accept the new collective-bargaining agreement under which Norwalk firefighters will receive annual pay increases of 2.35 percent. The contract is retroactive to July 1, 2016.

Democrats Steve Serasis, Phaedrel Bowman and Travis Simms abstained from the vote. Councilwoman Michelle Maggio, whose husband is a Norwalk firefighter, abstained from the discussion and vote.

Raymond Burney, Norwalk's director of personnel and labor relations, said the state insurance plan provides better benefits with lower employee co-payments and contributions, as well as significant overlap.

"The (new) plan and the current plan have about a 90 percent overlap of doctors as it is right now," Burney said. "There are exceptions ... but it's a pretty tight list right now."

At the same time, Burney offered no assurances that all retirees will be able to keep their existing doctors at no additional cost.

Councilman Douglas Hempstead, an at-large Republican, expressed his support for state insurance plan but added that its details were not communicated to the retirees. He moved to table action on the contract for two weeks.

"I voted for the contract. I think it's the right thing," Hempstead said. "Talking about a two-week tabling is more of a courtesy (to retirees)."

Unless rejected, the new contract would have become binding within about 25 days. Councilman Bruce Kimmel, an at-large Democrat, advised against rejecting the pact -- which he said would lead to arbitration -- or tabling action on it until the Oct. 24 council meeting.

"It doesn't matter if we table this 20 times," Kimmel said. "It's been negotiated.

Bowman, a District B Democrat, asked Norwalk Firefighters Union President Lefty Petrides if he felt comfortable with the state insurance plan.

"I'm as comfortable as I can be with a new plan," said Petridis before turning to the retirees. "If you guys have questions, I'll answer your questions."

So far, Norwalk police and teachers have been approved to move over to the Partnership 2.0 plan on Jan. 1 -- the deadline to come aboard.

In June, the council approved a new four-year contract between the city and Norwalk Police Union Local 1727. The pact, which is retroactive to July 1, 2016, gives police annual wage increases of 2.35 percent and changes their benefits to the state insurance plan.

Copyright 2017 The Hour

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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