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In Middletown, changes lead to concern, confusion, anger
Published Nov. 21, 2011
By Matt Sheley/Daily News staff
Leaders of Middletown's municipal and teachers unions say changes to the state's pension system have generated concern and confusion among town workers and retirees.
It is unfair to deny current and retired workers the benefits they were promised - such as cost-of-living adjustments - when they accepted town jobs, carried out their responsibilities and planned for their retirements, union leaders said.
A fairer approach to properly funding the system would be to change the benefits for future employees, they said.
Changes to the state's pension system, approved last week by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee, reverberate through Middletown. In addition to teachers, who are enrolled in the state's Employees' Retirement System, municipal employees, police and firefighters all are enrolled in the state's Municipal Employees' Retirement System. (Prior to 2001, some town employees were enrolled in a privately administered plan.)
"Everyone in every union I've ever talked to isn't against looking forward," said Ferenc Karoly, a Middletown police detective who is president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers-Middletown Local 534. "That's not what this is about. This is not a fair approach to the problem.
"We were promised one set of benefits and now there's another," he said. "What's to say that changes won't happen 10 years from now when this 'plan' doesn't work?"
"We're all worried about it and it's all very confusing," said Pam Gould, who works in the town's finance office and serves as president of Middletown Municipal Employees Association/NEARI. The union represents Town Hall staff, a custodian, an administrative assistant and a mechanic working at the police station and an administrative assistant working for the Fire Department.
"Frankly, it upsets everyone because our members are giving the money they're supposed to and it's not being taken care of properly," Gould said.
Lisa Wood, a math teacher at Gaudet Middle School and president of the National Education Association-Middletown, the union that represents town teachers, agreed.
"We feel the pension changes are extremely drastic," she said. "Certainly, they're very harsh and not fair to our active and retired teachers.
"We've repeated time and again that we're willing to be part of the solution, but we don't want our members to suffer from a set of problems we didn't create."
Reaction locally echoed the sentiments expressed by union representatives across Rhode Island, who vow the pension legislation will be contested in court.
Firefighter Jon Reese, the new president of Middletown Firefighters Local 1933 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said the state pension problem has sparked a lot of discussion around the fire station.
"We understand there is a problem with the pension system and something needs to be done," Reese said. "But as far as we are concerned, and by we, I mean active and retired (firefighters), charging full forward with this and doing everything at once isn't the best approach.
"It's all a question of fairness," Reese said. "This has been the subject of a lot of talk, but I don't think there's been a lot of analysis and consideration about the long-term implications of all of this."
Karoly said there's been a lot of misinformation about the state's pension system and efforts to reform it.
For example, he said, representatives for Chafee and General Treasurer Gina M. Raimondo told union officials that the proposed pension legislation would not impact police. Then, he said, radical changes were added at the last minute.
"We're very concerned about it, and not just for police and fire, but everyone," Karoly said. "What will that do to our state employees, our teachers? You could have a teacher who works to 67 and then collects 40 percent of their pay after 40 years and then has to get a second job. It's not a fair approach."
Public safety jobs take an exceptional toll, something the pension changes don't take into account, he said.
"Do you really want a 55-year-old police officer chasing down a 20-year-old (breaking-and-entering) suspect and fighting with him?" Karoly asked. "That's the way we're heading here. That's not a solution. That's dangerous."
No one wins if the pension legislation winds up in court, he said.
"Everyone is agreeable to sit at the table, and I think based on our actions it's clear we're willing to work together," Karoly said. "Unfortunately, the state's willingness to waste taxpayers' money with this poorly thought-out plan is probably going to end up costing a lot of their projected 'savings' in litigation fees."
Steven M. LaBrie, business agent for Teamsters Local 251, the union that represents Middletown's public works employees, also said he expects the changes to the state's pension system to end up in court.
"Anytime someone puts as much time as these employees have put in, they expect the pension to be there at the end of the road," LaBrie said. "What most people in the private sector don't seem to realize, like (certain talk radio hosts), is that if you're on the radio for 10 years and promised a pension and then it's taken away, you are going to be upset, too.
"This effects everyone," he said. "All you want is what's promised to you when you're done, and then they take that away."

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