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.
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.