Fire Chief Christopher Ackley, Deputy Fire Chief Jon Gottfried and Police Chief Al Fiore are retired. But none of them should be planning any extended fishing trips just yet.
While the police and fire pension boards voted to accept the retirements, none of the three is giving up the job for now. Under the first selectman's powers to hire and fire town employees, they will be offered a chance to keep running Westport's emergency services.
"It's been 31 years and 11 months," said Ackley of his time leading Westport's firefighters. "It's been a good job, and a good place to work."
The retirements were prompted by a 20 percent jump in the cost of the three officials' health insurance. Under their contracts, all three are allowed to retire. If they stayed past the beginning of the fiscal year they would have to pay the increase. Retiring now, they protect their benefits. Few blame the chiefs for protecting themselves, but several are not happy about keeping them in their positions.
Don Bergmann voiced concerns that among other things keeping the trio hired under new contracts that do not accrue new benefits still blocks other officers from rising to the top slot in either department. There are also concerns about the SAFER program grant under which the town could hire eight more emergency personnel. As a chief architect of the grant, Ackley assured Bergmann that while there are some issues affecting the grant, his retirement will not.
"I think the big issue here is one of policy," said Bergmann. "My goal is to make the public aware. I don't want to blame the employees, but I do suspect this is bad for morale."
Ed Devlin, who has served as chief financial officer of several corporations, was less diplomatic. "These sort of sweetheart deals do not and would not occur in the private sector," said Devlin. In his world, when someone retires they take their benefits and clear the way for the next person in the chain. He said town policies that govern pensions and allow for the first selectman to keep on a retired individual in his or her same capacity need to be looked at. "These policies are unfair to the taxpayers and the lower members of the unions."
Ackley said that while he is expecting to stay on the job for now his decision to retire was not conditional on being offered a continuing contract. If the reworked contract doesn't come to pass, so be it. "Either way, I'm retired," he said. Under the proposed new plan the chiefs would not collect new benefits and would take a reduction in sick and vacation days. But they would receive a paycheck from the town while collecting their pension benefits. He said he wasn't surprised the firefighter's union voted against accepting the retirement conditions.
Joseloff told the pension board he was comfortable with the chiefs' retirements. "As of today, they are full-time employees but not under the pension plan," he said.
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