Tempers rise -- but not pensions for Leominster

LEOMINSTER -- Tension between the chairman of the Retirement Board, other board members and city retirees erupted into open hostility at a meeting Tuesday, when another attempt at securing a cost-of-living raise for pensioners failed.

"You've been lying to this board," elected Retirement Board member John Picone said to Chairman John Richard, who is also the city comptroller, in front of more than 40 city retirees in the Council Chambers of City Hall. "You've been lying to me. You've been lying to the people out here for years.

And these are the people who came to work every day and did their jobs."

Picone made the allegation, which was vigorously denied by Richard, just after he made a motion to grant a 3 percent cost-of-living raise to city retirees.

The attempted increase failed when the board deadlocked in a 2-2 vote. Richard and board member David Laplante, also the city treasurer, voted against the raise, while Picone and elected board member John Perry supported it.

Perry, during the board's last meeting in May, made an identical attempt at the increase. That effort failed when his motion didn't garner a second from the other board members, including Mark O'Donnell, who didn't attend Tuesday's meeting.

Picone did not attend the May meeting.

Picone made the allegation that Richard had been untruthful based on what he believed was an agreement made last year between the board and Richard to support Richard's request to decrease the city's return on its investments from 8 percent to 5.5 percent in exchange for his support of a cost-of-living raise for retirees.

"Are you serious? That is outrageous for you to make a comment like that," Richard said after Picone's allegation.

Sentinel and Enterprise staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

Many of the state's municipalities use the 8 percent return on investments when calculating the funding of future retiree benefits. Richard has said in the past that using the higher percentage rate allows municipalities to overstate their ability to fund future retiree benefits.

Despite using the lower rate in the city's retiree-benefits funding formula, Richard conceded during the meeting that the city has averaged 8.77 percent in its return on investments over the last 30 years.

After the failed attempt to increase the cost of living by 3 percent, which would add about $360 a year for the average city retiree, Perry made a motion to increase it by 1.7 percent based on the consumer price index.

Sentinel and Enterprise staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

That attempt also failed by the same vote after Picone made another plea to the board for its support.

"You're talking about one generation that you're picking on here, and it was the greatest generation," Picone said. "And now you're forgetting them. It doesn't make any sense to pick on one generation."

Richard said his primary reason for not supporting the raise would mean it would increase the overall cost to the city for its retiree benefits.

However, Perry said that with the city's retiree benefits projected to be fully funded by 2022, adding the approximately $1.1 million needed for the cost-of-living increase would only delay the city being fully funded by four additional months.

Perry also said that if the city is actually realizing a return on its investments of 8.77 percent, when the 5.5 percent is being used in its retiree-funding formula schedules, the city's real return on investments would probably cover the increase.

Retired Fire Department Deputy Chief William Thibodeau said the board should be "ashamed of themselves" for not increasing the cost-of-living raise over the last five years.

"The retirees are angry, and they have a right to be," he said, visibly shaking in anger.

He said the city is the only municipality in the state that hasn't made the increase for its retirees in five years.

Retired school-district employee Nona Ojala said she believes Mayor Dean Mazzarella supports increasing the retiree benefit, and if the Retirement Board continues to vote down increases, it's being insubordinate.

After the board denied both raise proposals, Perry made a motion to allow board members to participate in meetings by telephone, which Picone said has been done in the past. That attempt also failed by a 2-2 vote.

Retired firefighter Kevin Sideleau asked Richard why he doesn't support remote participation.

Richard responded that there was no "give-and-take discussion" between board members and the public under such a scenario.

Sideleau pressed Richard, "Are you doing what's right for the retirement system? Are you doing what's right for the people?"

"Yes," responded Richard, which was met with laughter and derision by the retirees attending the meeting.

When Sideleau was finished, Richard asked whether anyone else wanted to speak.

"Probably God asking himself, 'Are you kidding me?'" Sideleau said. "That's probably the only person that has a question for you now. You should be ashamed of yourself."
Richard said that was the end of the discussion.

The board also decided to hold another meeting before July 1 in another attempt to increase the retiree benefit. That meeting will be scheduled after the members can find a time to meet together, and will be posed on the city's website.

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