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Pension laws pare police, fire rolls

Wave of retirements as benefits change; State budget limits bonuses, disability

By Michael Levenson and Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / July 1, 2009
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This week’s rash of retirements by Boston firefighters seeking disability pensions is but one part of a wave of such departures across Massachusetts, as a pair of new state laws that could greatly diminish the pension benefits of public safety workers take effect today.

Police officers in Boston were filing for disability pensions in unusually high numbers over the past several days because of a key change in how benefits are calculated, and officers around the state were putting in for retirement after the Legislature slashed a key pay provision.

Ten Boston police officers with outstanding disability claims have filed for retirement since Thursday, police officials said. “That would be more than we typically see,’’ said Elaine Driscoll, a police spokeswoman.

The likely reason: Under a new state law, pensions will be based on the salary employees received in the 12 months prior to their injury, rather than, as before, the 12 months prior to their retirement. That is significant because employees can be out on injury leave, collecting raises and cost-of-living hikes, for many years.

One of those officers, Maureen E. Parolin, a sergeant detective, has been on injured leave for nine years because of a car accident. Her case, which has been moving glacially through city and state review panels, has become a symbol of the exorbitant costs and many delays of the Boston retirement system. By seeking retirement before the law took ef fect, Parolin stands to nearly double her annual pension, to $83,175 from the $43,750 she would get if she had filed for retirement after today, according to city payroll records. She could not be reached for comment.

Elsewhere in the state, police officers were rushing to retire for yet another reason: A dramatic cut in the state budget threatens to diminish their pay and future pension benefits. The budget, which takes effect today, greatly reduces funding for the Quinn Bill, a program that boosts the salaries of police officers who hold college degrees. The state allocated $10 million for the program this year, down from roughly $50 million.

That reduction means police in many communities will not only earn less on the job but could also see reduced pensions, which are calculated on salaries.

For example, immediately after Governor Deval Patrick signed the state budget Monday, seven of the most veteran members of the Arlington Police Department finalized their retirement. “The institutional knowledge and veteran police command experience that just went out the door is nearly impossible to replace,’’ said Arlington Police Chief Frederick Ryan, who lost all three of his next most senior leaders.

The Globe reported yesterday that 29 Boston firefighters on injury leave filed retirement papers Monday. Two dozen of those firefighters were seeking enhanced pension because they reported injury while filling in for a superior at a higher pay grade. The state law ends this practice, which had been available to firefighters even when they filled in for a superior for one day.

Among the many firefighters who sought the benefit in the closing hours, one name stood out. John McKenna was president of the city firefighters’ union in 2000, when it won a contract provision that opened the door for scores of firefighters to receive higher pensions because they claimed they suffered career-ending injuries while filling in for superiors.

A captain, McKenna has filed to receive a boosted pension based on the claim that he twisted his knee while filling in for a district chief on Dec. 6, 2006, according to two high-ranking public officials. If his claim is approved, he could win an additional $20,000 in annual pension benefits because he filed for retirement before today. The move increased his disability benefit from the $68,000 annual pension he would have received as a captain to the roughly $88,000 he now stands to receive at the district chief’s rate, according to payroll records. McKenna could not be reached for comment after multiple attempts yesterday.

According to city records, the new wave of firefighters who filed for retirement this week, a total of 33, includes seven lieutenants, four captains, and one district chief. City officials said it was a massive rush.

“They’re just grabbing the money, now that they know the rules are changed,’’ said Jeffrey W. Conley, executive director of the Boston Finance Commission, a city watchdog agency.

Union officials strongly defended the benefit and said it had been approved by the administration of Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

“That was contract language that management asked to be put in there, and now we’re being tortured to get it out,’’ said Robert B. McCarthy, president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts.

Menino administration officials said they simply agreed to change the way firefighters fill in for supervisors and never anticipated such a change would result in disability pension abuse.

“Nothing changed in the contract that justifies this alarming increase in disability retirements,’’ said John Dunlap, the city’s director of labor relations. “Frankly, that’s just union spin to excuse their own bad behavior.’’

Globe correspondent Matt Collette and Eric Moskowitz of the Globe staff contributed to this report.