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3rd time not a charm, as Leominster board again denies pension raise for retirees
By Cliff Clark, email@example.com
LEOMINSTER -- The third attempt to secure an annual pension increase for city retirees failed like the first two at a meeting Tuesday morning of the city's Retirement Board.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourselves," one person shouted from a crowd of more than 50 city retirees and supporters at the board as three of its members raised their hands to deny city retirees a 1.7 percent cost-of-living increase.
Before the vote, board Chairman John Richard, also the city comptroller, explained why he can't support the increase, which would have added about $190 each year to the average city retiree's pension.
"It's incumbent for me to look at the long-term health of the city," said Richard, who was the only board member who spoke against the increase.
Richard, along with board member and city Treasurer David Laplante and appointed board member and local general contractor Mark O'Donnell, voted against the increase, while appointed members John Perry and John Picone supported it.
Perry, when explaining his reasoning for supporting the increase, said if, over the last six years, the board had granted an increase each year based on the Consumer Price Index, retirees could have kept up with inflation.
"I would argue that it is not only our fiduciary duty to insure the stability of the retirement system, but to maintain the promise of a pension at an amount calculated at retirement," Perry said.
The key word, said Perry, is "maintain."
"You're not maintaining the value of the members' benefit when you don't account for inflation," he said.
Perry added that he never thought that upon retirement, "the pension would devalue every year, but that's what we're doing to these members."
Picone said he is "embarrassed" by the board's inability to grant even a "measly" increase.
Leominster is the only municipality in the state to not offer a cost-of-living increase to its pensioners in the last five years.
John Richard, chairman of the Leominster Retirement Board addresses the retirees at Tuesday's meeting of the board at City Hall. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE / JOHN LOVE
"I was brought up to respect others, especially my elders, and help in any way I can," said Picone, who has served on the board since 1999. "I never was brought up to disrespect anyone, so even at this point in my life, it's so embarrassing."
Referring to how small the increase would be if passed, he said it could be used for a couple of prescriptions, a dinner or a tank of gas.
"You cause the elderly to fear running out of heat, food and proper medications, which causes stress and, therefore, shortens their lives," Picone said. "So therefore, you, the city of Leominster, wins both ways.
"Nothing has ever gotten better for them," he added. "These past five years, with no increases, they have had to pay more for foods, meds, gasoline, electricity, heat and taxes.
Everything goes up except their income. Embarrassing."
In fact, Picone said, "It's embarrassing to have to say I'm from Leominster."
Richard, answering Picone, said, "Kicking the can down the road has to stop in the city."
He said the city is still currently granting benefits annually that it's not paying for in the "multimillion-dollar range."
"In order to stop the hemorrhaging and the credit-card mentality, it is incumbent upon me to look at the long-term health of the retirement system for the city and live within our means," Richard said.
Before the vote was taken, several city retirees and City Council President Richard Marchand urged the board to approve the increase.
"I'm here for the people who worked for the city for a very long time," said Marchand, who complimented the city's finance team on its aggressive efforts at addressing the city's long-term obligations for its retirees.
However, he said, "There is a moral obligation was have as a city."
After offering a brief history of the past financial troubles of the city in the 1990s and how municipal employees, including firefighters, stepped up to help during the crisis, he said that was a debt that needs to be repaid.
"I don't want to be the president of the City Council that has the greatest budget and greatest reserves in the history of the city without being moral to the people who put us in that position and fought for us for decades," Marchand said.
"To think about not getting a raise for six years is immoral and ungodly, from my position as council president," he said.
"Let's not put it on the backs of these people," Marchand said, referring to the retirees attending the meeting in the Council Chambers.
Department of Public Works retiree Beverly Caefer asked how the city is able deny its pensioners a cost-of-living increase.
"Is this legal? Is there a higher authority we can contact?" Caefer asked.
After the vote to deny the COLA, Picone asked if he could pose any additional questions.
Richard stopped him and asked for a motion to adjourn, which was made by O'Donnell and passed.
After the meeting, Picone said he was going to attempt to make several additional motions before being cut off.
He said he was going to ask the board to increase survivor benefits for widows of disability retirees who couldn't choose a survivor when they enrolled for pension benefits.
Picone was also going to ask for an increase of $6,000 for surviving spouses of city employees who die while working; to increase the pension base for retirees from $12,000 to $16,000; and to adopt a rule that would allow members to participate at meetings remotely, by telephone.