Letter Sparks Debate Over Fairfield Fire Retirements

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Fairfield Fire Chief Richard Felner reads a statement about his department's promotion practices at Wednesday's Board of Selectmen meeting. Photo Credit: Greg Canuel

FAIRFIELD, Conn. – An unsigned letter sent to town officials has raised questions about the promotion and retirement practices within the Fairfield Fire Department.

The anonymous letter was sent to Board of Finance Chairman Thomas Flynn last month. In it, the writer called attention to the fact that seven officers within the fire department retired shortly after being promoted to a higher rank on a provisional basis in the past year.

Three cases involved firefighters moving up to lieutenant. Two lieutenants also moved to assistant chief, and two assistant chiefs were promoted to training officer just before retirement.

The timing of the retirements allowed the firefighters to receive higher pension payments. The Fairfield firefighters’ contract states that a retiree’s pension is based on his last active salary, regardless of time served at that salary. The increased pensions will cost the town $1.8 million over the next 30 years, Selectman Kevin Kiley said was his rough estimate.

“I don’t understand how that is in the best interest of our town, our taxpayers or our pension payers,” Kiley said.

Provisional promotions are temporary appointments made to fill leadership roles after retirements or during extended sick leaves. They do not require the usual testing procedures needed for permanent promotions and are made at the discretion of Fire Chief Richard Felner and the Fairfield Fire Commission.

Felner told the Board of Selectmen on Wednesday that he has no control over his staff’s decisions to retire and sometimes has no knowledge until they leave. When those spots are empty, however, he fills them with provisional promotions to save from having to pay other officers of that ranks overtime, he said.

He also said he offers provisional leadership positions based on seniority, according to rules set by the union contract. Previous first selectmen advised him to follow this procedure, Felner added, and he believes it had been the department’s practice since at least the 1970s.

“I follow the contract, and I call that good management,” Felner said. “You either follow the rules or you don’t follow the rules. … I can’t just change it because I don’t like it.”

Retirements such as these had not happened since the beginning of the Human Resources Department’s current records in 2005, Kiley said. “I’m not buying the past practice argument,” he said.

“The end result is, there is certainly an appearance that is uncomfortable at best,” Selectman Cristin McCarthy Vahey said. “And it is concerning, and it is upsetting for me. I can’t support any kind of practice that would intentionally in any way try to bump up a pension.”

The Board of Selectmen will discuss the issue again later this month. The Board of Finance and the Fire Commission will also talk about the policy at their meetings next week.

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