WHITE PLAINS — A group of retired White Plains firefighters are urging the city to uphold a promise made to them that their health benefits would be covered through retirement.
For over a year, former Deputy Fire Chief Ed Lobermann, 85, has made presentations and met with city officials regarding the issue. Lobermann represents around 100 retired firefighters who pay 15% of their premium, when they were told in the 1970’s it would be paid for them.
The legality and impending financial impact on the city have caused pause for some members of the council. Council member Milagros Lecuona proposed legislation to benefit the group of retirees that was discussed at a special meeting Monday.
The legislation would stop retired firefighters aged 70 or older from contributing any amount toward their health insurance. Those younger than 70 who demonstrate financial hardship also would no longer contribute anything.
White Plains Corporation Counsel John Callahan said the proposal would cost the city approximately $200,000 in the next fiscal year. The cost of waiving all past-due premiums would be a one-time payment of $1.5 million, Callahan said.
According to Mayor Tom Roach, that $1.5 million belongs to the city’s taxpayers.
“You can ask them for that all you want to, but I’m not sure you’re ever going to get any of that. Not after you made promises to give them lifetime benefits and then they don’t get it,” council member Dennis Krolian said.
The situation stems from 2010 when the city of White Plains faced a serious budget deficit that would have required a tax increase of almost 17%.
That year the city went back on its promise to all firefighters, all of whom had to then contribute 15% to their health insurance premiums. In 2015 full benefits were restored only to active firefighters.
“The salary that they were receiving and you compare that to nowadays, it’s no comparison whatsoever. Because at the time, benefits were also part of it,” Lecuona said.
Active firefighters are unionized, with differing contracts than the retired firefighters, who were also paid considerably less than firefighters today make, in part because they expected to receive full benefits.
At the time the change went underway, common council members had to consider the 17% tax increase, according to Lecuona, who was on council in 2010. Council members at that time were under the impression the firemen would not suffer as a result of the change, she said.
“I think that we voted for this under the wrong information,” Lecuona said. “Now that we know better, I think that we should make it fair.” Get the Daily Briefing newsletter in your inbox.
An unfair precedent?
Concerns over whether restoring full health benefits for the retired firefighters would set a precedent were highlighted by some members of the council, including Roach.
“What about a similarly situated sanitation worker, or police officer or DPW worker?” Roach asked.
“It’s a question, that is not really the problem of the firefighters who are here tonight,” Krolian said. “But these are the people who first brought the complaint. And I think it was the city that precipitated this complaint.”
On Nov. 1, 2018, the group of retired firefighters withdrew a lawsuit they had filed against the city, hoping that would allow for productive conversation regarding the issue.
Now after a year and countless presentations, emails and meetings between Lobermann, other retired firefighters and city officials, the discussion is ongoing.
Lecuona voiced her disappointment.
“There was never a red flag about the sanitation department, there was never a red flag about the $1.5 million, and now all of these issues are on the table,” Lecuona said. “You are playing with the lives of these people. This is no respect.”
Around 40 people were in attendance at Monday’s council meeting, which ended with council members moving behind closed doors to further discuss the issue.
“It’s insulting to have sanitation workers and office workers benefits compared to firefighters, who have breathed in smoke with inadequate safety equipment,” Janet Beechert, daughter of Lobermann, said Monday.
Retired firefighters said they had hoped for a little bit more from the council.
“We’re not in the same position that sanitation or the police are in,” retired White Plains fireman John Marconi said.
“When we signed onto the job, to be a firefighter, we gave the city a blank check good for 20 or 30 years for everything we could give, plus our lives,” he said. “And we were given a promise during that time that our health benefits would be in place after we retired.”
Lobermann believes an amended resolution will be reviewed at the next council meeting, he told The Journal News/lohud on Wednesday.
“I’m disappointed at this point that the city has not restored our benefits. At this point, we are putting in a revised and amended resolution that is supposed to be submitted Monday night,” Loberman said.
“To penalize us because we don’t have something to give back to the city, while the active men do,” Loberman said. “We lost five firefighters in the line of duty during my career. I think that’s enough to give back.”