Town Throws Cold Water On Firefighters’ Negotiations

As politicians, taxpayers and other stakeholders debate next year’s town budget, much of the focus is on education. That’s no surprise: It comprises the bulk of our spending; it involves kids and buildings, and everyone has their own school experiences to draw on, good or bad.

But we pay for many other services. Most are less visible than education. Lots of those negotiations take place outside the public eye.

One of those involves firefighters’ benefits and pensions. The other day, Nick Marsan laid out their case. It’s got some surprising twists — like a proposal to take away death benefits for families of firefighters killed in the line of duty. There are also decreases in healthcare for firefighters and their families after retirement.

Nick Marsan (Photo/Laura Weiss for Hearst Connecticut Media)

The firefighters’ pension contract — which is different from the work contract — expired last summer. Marsan — president of the 64-member Westport Uniformed Firefighters Local 1081 — and his team met with town officials for a few negotiating sessions.

After what Marsan calls “a short process,” the town declared an impasse. The contract is now in the hands of state-appointed arbitrators.

The union president is disappointed. “We walked into negotiations expecting the town was not going to change anything for existing personnel,” Marsan says. “We thought we’d be talking about future hires only.” Instead, the town also included current firefighters in their pension proposals.

Marsan says the town “pulled the rug out from people who have been here 25, 30 years. They now might have to make hasty decisions to protect benefits they’ve worked all their careers to achieve. They could lose 6% of what they’d get if they retire now, and possibly cost-of-living benefits.”

The proposal to take away family benefits for a firefighter killed in action is particularly disheartening.

“I’m speaking for my brothers and sisters. I think we’re a class act,” Marsan says.

“We go above and beyond, to provide a service to the town. We do it with a smile. We’ll never not be there for residents. But I think this is an ideological attack on us.”

Marsan notes, “I have a master’s degree. I could be in the private sector. People don’t join the fire service to get rich. We come, we work hard, we sacrifice 30 years of our lives for the municipality.

“We leave with aches and pains. We’re 68% more susceptible to cancer than the general population. All we ask is continued support for our retirement, and the benefits we were promised.”

He knows that “pensions” is a political minefield these days. But, Marsan says, there are a number of misconceptions about firefighters’ benefits. He says that pensions are based on base salary only — not overtime. His members pay 10% of their salaries into the pension fund. Westport’s fund, he says, is “one of the best in the state.”

He continues: “I’m a big boy. I’ve been through a lot worse than this — I’ve been in combat overseas. But this is tough to watch, especially for guys who have been here a lot longer than I have, and will do anything for the town.”

He appreciates the “brand” of Westport, and recites its “jewels”: “incredible beaches, a beautiful library, great arts, a fantastic education system.”

But, he says, “people who buy homes here also know the fire and police services are top-notch.”

Marsan concludes, “This is a living, breathing town. We’re not looking to break the bank. We choose this profession, and we know we’ll spend a lot of time away from our families.

“I don’t live in a vacuum. I understand the town has responsibilities to taxpayers. But we are a human resource. We should be valued.

“We just want to be taken care of. If I die in the line of duty, I want to make sure my wife and kid are taken care of.”

An arbitration decision could be made by mid-May.

21 responses to “Town Throws Cold Water On Firefighters’ Negotiations

  1. I hope the negotiations end in favor of these brave firefighters…..I can’t do much about how things will turn out but sure can let them know how much all of them are appreciated by sending some Le Rouge “Give a Little Love” chocolate hearts to them today…. that’s exactly why I started this campaign

  2. our response time in westport from both police and fire is some of the best in the state and even country, it would be a tragedy to change that, as well as not right to take something that has been provided and understood over lengthy careers. how about all these career politicians in washington and from state to state, have we taken their salaries, pensions, and insuarances down?

  3. Miriamne DeMarrais

    Thank you! Thank you! I support and appreciate the men and women who work in our fire and police department. Both are outstanding institutions! As someone who works in the private sector, I believe they deserve a particular set of benefits unique to their work — which includes protections for their families.
    I will let my disappointment be heard at town hall that this matter was not resolved at the town level. We in Westport value our community and value those who are entrusted in protecting and keeping us save.

  4. This has happened time and time again in the private sector. What makes this so wrong is that our elected state officials have no regard for hard working people like our firemen and police. They just make sure they do what’s right for them!!

  5. Amy Saperstein

    Huge thank you to the men and women who work in our fire and police department. Both are amazing.
    Thank you for all the hard work that you do to keep us safe!

  6. Loretta Santella Hallock

    It’s always nice to thank them but let’s also compensate them for all they do to protect us.

  7. Taking away death benefits for families of fallen firefighters who die while on the call of duty is unconscionable.

  8. Wow, for all these men and women have done for the town of Westport and this is their thank you? Having been a Westport resident for 26 years, I’m disgusted.

  9. Kendall Gardiner

    I am totally in support of the firefighters in this matter, even if it means we have to each pay a little more in taxes.

  10. Dan – thank you for publishing Local 1081 Union President Nick Marsan’s communication. The Town greatly values and respects the important work that our first responders do to keep Westporters safe. In return, the Town provides our employees with generous wages, excellent benefits and state of the art equipment.

    As many of your readers realize, we simply cannot negotiate a union contract in public – i.e., we cannot comment on any of the specific points raised above. The arbitrator’s decision is expected within 60 days. The arbitrator goes item by item, and selects between the town’s best offer and the union’s best offer. This method motivates each side to put its best foot forward since the arbitrator may only select one or the other for each item. As in any negotiation, there is no “winner” or “loser.” An agreement is reached that provides for elements of what the union is seeking and elements of what the town is seeking.

    The reason for the perceived disconnect is that the prior pension contract had an unusually long 15-year term. The town is seeking to realign our pension contract with those in other communities. Doing so requires some give and take on both sides.

    Our objectives throughout the negotiations have been to: 1) ensure that our pension agreements are fair to our valued employees, and 2) ensure that the pension agreements are sustainable for our current and future taxpayers.

    • Bruce Schneider

      Avi:

      What you said about arbitration is correct, however, the fact that the town would consider and therefore offer to cut the death benefit is unconscionable and appears petty. I believe even if the arbitrator rules against the firefighters, with the firefighters agreement, the town can restore the death benefit. I would hope that this would happen.

      I agree that a union negotiation should not be done in public, however, the public will in time be the final arbiter on how the town handled this matter with their vote in the next town-wide Selectmen election.

  11. David J. Loffredo

    What’s a pension?

  12. Hmmm, crickets from the usual fiscally focused commenters.

  13. It seems like Westport wants and demands best but wants a discount and to play let’s make a deal when it comes comes to paying for it.
    As I understand Westport pays pretty high taxes to protect this beautiful town and to keep it “Westport”. But it seems now when it comes to paying to PROTECT this beautiful jewel of a town they want a bargain? Line of Duty Death benefits should not even be on the table for discussion that is just unfathomable to me. Then on top of that discussion to pull the rug out from our veteran firefighters who have been protecting this town for their full career?
    Bravo to you Union President, veteran firefighter & now Fire Inspector Nick Marsan for letting Westporters know what is trying to be negotiated with their money. Seems from vast majority of these comments they all agree with you Nick and the way the Benefits SHOULD be implemented. #istandwithWFDWUFL1081

  14. Mary (Cookman) Schmerker Staples 1958

    I’d like to remind everyone that they are the first responders, often the first on the scene of a fall in a store, at a traffic accident, when someone is found near a dumpster, as happened recently, and of course at a fire, whether it is the newest “McMansion” or a small family owned retail store. Every time they leave home they do not know what they will experience in that given day. Perhaps it is a slow uneventful day or back to back calls and tragedies. They rush in when others fear to approach a situation. They deserve our thanks and proper compensation for their labors. They give us their best. The least we can do is give back what they have been promised.

  15. Marjorie Almansi

    Our firemen (and policemen) in Westport are first rate and cherished by the community. They went into this career knowing the personal sacrifices they would have to make for their family. They also chose this career path with a reasonable expectation that their families would be provided for via their pension and other benefits. We have full expectations that they will be there for us 100%, 365 days a year. We, in return, must be there for them — along with their benefits.

  16. Werner Liepolt

    I can’t imagine a first responder ever hesitating to face a life-saving situation… Nor should they ever have a reason to.

    • I agree, Werner — just like what happened a few days ago, right near your house. A firefighter jumped quickly into the very cold Saugatuck River — without waiting for support — in order to save a woman whose car had gone into the water.

  17. Communities in general need to take better care of their furst responders. The vast majority of them are very dedicated people who perform well in less than perfect situations. As a retired law enforcement officer, I tip my hat to you and wish you well in your efforts.
    I am not a resident of Westport, but I feel for what you are experiencing.

  18. In Massachusetts, we just doubled our death benefits to FF’s. To take them away is reduculous and the town officials know it.

  19. Winfield Street Italian Deli

    Our firefighters are true heros. I have witnessed many of them in the line of duty and their overall work schedule. They don’t have it easy and it truly takes full commitment to the community they serve. They must be valued. Our town’s firefighters are brave and have a lot of integrity. Changing their pension fund now, especially for those that have so many years of work is a stab in the back.

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