WEST HAVEN, CT — Nearly 10 years after the city, as the result of a controversial arbitration award, switched the Police Department from a chronically underfunded traditional pension plan to a 401(k), police are pushing the city to switch back, saying the change was a bad deal.
Meanwhile, experienced cops continue to retire or take their experience to other departments, and many new officers come in, get trained and then move on.
The change was initiated in 2009 when John Picard was may and cemented by the arbitration award in 2010. In the years since, not having a pension plan — coupled with comparatively low pay — has turned West Haven from a respected department that drew officers to the equivalent of a minor league farm team, police brass, rank-and-file officers and union officials say.
Today’s WHPD is a place where new officers get hired and get trained — at a cost of $70,130 per recruit before they go out on the street — and then take their experience somewhere else, cops say.
Without a pension — and without any long-term disability safety net in the event officers get hurt on the job — younger officers have less reason to stay.
And it hasn’t really saved the city money, police at various levels said.
This is not the first time the police union has raised red flags about the issue, but now those flags also are flying from the top of the department’s organizational chart.
“We’ve become a training facility,” said Deputy Chief Joseph Perno, who has been running the department since Chief John Karajanis went out on worker’s compensation.
When officers are hired, “the pension is a form of security,” said Perno, who made his case to the City Council at a recent meeting. “That is the dominant reason that we get from all of the officers that have left the department: lack of a pension.”
While a 401(k) may work fine in the private sector, people in the private sector “don’t wear a ballistic vest to work,” Perno said.
Pension issues are not a problem solely for West Haven.
New Haven’s pension obligation is $1.2 billion with some $700 million in two plans unfunded; the Policemen and Firemen Retirement Fund is 43 percent funded, while the City Employees Retirement Fund is at 33 percent. The city recently formed a task force to try to address the issue.
Meanwhile, a number of Connecticut municipalities have switched over some or all of their pension funds to a 401(k) for new hires, including in Danbury, Norwalk, North Haven, Branford and Stratford — although in some cases, traditional pension funds have been retained for police and firefighters.
The change to a 401(k) in West Haven applied to any employees hired after November 2009.
Since 2009, “17 officers have been hired and trained, only to leave for another department, with the primary reason for their departure being lack of a pension,” Perno told the council.
Based on the total combined cost for salaries, training expenses and benefits, the city has spent about $1.7 million “with nothing to show for it,” Perno said.
Without a pension, “We’re having a hard time selling WHPD to young, bright kids” and “we are having a difficult time attracting lateral transfers” and retired officers from other departments “due to our salary,” Perno said, appealing for the council’s help.
West Haven officials — including Mayor Nancy Rossi and former Police Chief Ron Quagliani, who was chief when the change went into effect and now is chairman of the City Council — are willing to listen.
Perno told the City Council that Rossi “has been receptive, understanding and helpful.”
But in a city running deep in the red and under state supervision, it’s hard to make those kinds of changes right now.
“I can’t say yes, or not yet, because we are in negotiations” on a new police contract, said Rossi, who said that as a City Council member in 2009, she opposed the change to the current system. “But we are exploring all options.”
“When they went into the 401K, the officers went into the Social Security” system, Rossi said. “I wasn’t in support of moving that. I was in support of changing the existing pension to make it more like the requirements of a 401K — maybe not 20 years and out. Maybe 25 years.”
And when the city had an actuarial study done before going to a 401(k), “they didn’t take into account the cost of Social Security,” she said.
“It absolutely concerns me” that the department is down so many members, she said. “I’m absolutely concerned about it. We need to do something.”
Costs and careers
There is a quantifiable cost to being a department with lots of turnover.
According to a memorandum from Perno to Rossi, the cost of training a new police recruit through 26 weeks at the police academy is $70,130, including wages, field training, clothing and equipment, a bullet proof vest and the costs for training and administering psychological and polygraph tests.
That does not include the costs of medical benefits or paid holidays.
Quagliani, who was police chief in 2009, said that at the time, “I was adamant about not wanting to do away with the pension because I was concerned that West Haven would turn into what West Haven sort of has become — some sort of training ground for other departments.”
Now, “the salary is average and the benefits are less than average … so guys are going elsewhere,” he said.
The study done before the change found that “it was cost neutral … I think the argument from the mayor at the time was we are going to save money,” Quagliani said. “But the study that we did at the time did not factor in the Social Security payments.
“Based on that discussion, the council voted against it,” but it ended up going to arbitration “and they lost,” he said.
“I don’t think they ever should have gotten rid of the pension,” Quagliani said. “I’ve reached out to the chief and the union president since then. … I did ask if they are having discussions with the city, and they did say that they are. So I am hoping that something will happen.”
The West Haven department has hired dozens of officers in recent years, yet its actual complement — budgeted to be 120 officers — has sunk to 107 officers and is about to drop to 105 as two more officers depart, Perno said.
Sgt. Scott Kleinknecht, who supervises training and recruitment, said that in the 31/2 years he’s been in that position, he has overseen hiring and training of 19 officers. His original goal was to get to 124, but it hasn’t worked out.
He expects that by the end of this month, the number could be down to 103.
“As far as I know, the No. 1 driver is the pension and No. 2 would be pay,” Kleinknecht said.
“Obviously, the No. 3 is the whole MARB board,” he said, referring to the state Municipal Accountability Review Board, which is working with the city to improve its finances.
Cops are not enticed by “the fact that we possibly won’t be getting raises for four, five years in the five-year plan, Kleinknecht said. “It’s just not sitting well with the officers,” he said.
“It definitely damages morale,” said police union President Detective Sean Faughnan of the lack of a pension. It hurts “the camaraderie among the other officers, because you start working with someone who you have a lot of respect for, and then they’re gone.
“We’re like the training ground for other departments…” Faughnan said. “It costs money to train someone, and it’s like throwing money away … Years ago, West Haven was the police department to come to. Now, it’s, like, transient.”
Police officers, who face the threat of danger every day, often wonder, “If you have a family or just God-forbid if something happens, who’s going to take care of you?” Faughnan said. “We’re losing great people … They’re my friends, and it hurts to see a lot of guys leave.”
One of the ones who left, Scott Carrigan, who grew up in West Haven but left for East Haven in 2012 after just under three years on the job in West Haven, said that if West Haven had a pension, he would still be there.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “My reason for leaving was solely on that. Other than that, there’s no doubt in my mind I would have still been there.
“They were great to me. They hired me,” said Carrigan, 37. “But what happened was, they basically had a date right before I got hired, that anyone hired after that date is not going to have a pension.
“I’ve got a family now,” he said, pointed out that when he left, his wife was pregnant with the first of what are now two children.
In addition, with the 401(k), unlike with the traditional pension, “there’s no disability retirement if you get injured on the job,” he said.
Right now, “You’ll see people go there to basically just get their foot in the door, and it’s a shame, because it’s a great department,” Carrigan said. But “it’s basically like a farm team” for the departments that do have pensions, he said.
A West Haven police officer — born and raised in town — who is getting ready to work for another Connecticut police department outside of Greater New Haven, said that lack of a pension, “just mediocre” pay and a schedule system that hasn’t allowed him ever to have a weekend off are the only reasons to leave.
“It’s a very good department. We have very good supervision.I like the people I work with,” the officer said. “But I have a wife and (two) kids to worry about.”
The officer said that as a Grade D patrolman, he makes about $56,000, with Grade A patrolmen topping out at about $71,000 in West Haven, while most other area police departments start officers out in the mid-60s.
“We’re one of the lowest-paid departments in the state,” he said.
“I love West Haven. It’s my hometown. I’ve been here my whole life…” he said. “Do I think things will get better for the city? Yes, I do. But I need to take care of myself and my family.”
West Haven patrolman Craig Thompson, who came on at the same time as Carrigan and is currently assigned to the street crime unit, has no intention of leaving — although he admits that he has looked around a bit.
But he understands why so many of his fellow cops have left.
“I’m watching people go left and right … I’m watching all these people that I’m training walk out the door for better departments,” Thompson said. “There’s no incentives for younger guys to stay.
“I’m watching this revolving door that we’re in, guys coming in and guys leaving…” he said. “The experienced guys will be leaving soon, and you’re going to have a lot of people without a lot of experience.
“There’s no insurance policy … for us. We don’t have a desk job where we sit all day,’” Thompson said. “I can’t tell you how many fights I’ve been in, how many times I’ve been hit … Something could happen to me tomorrow, and I’d be out of luck…
“This wasn’t a well thought-out plan,” he said. “This was a good idea that didn’t turn out so good.”
Kleinknecht said he thinks the department needs to reinstate a pension “so we can attract lateral officers (from other police departments) to backfill all those positions. You could offset the pay a little bit with a better benefit package for retirement.”
Why aim to attract officers from other departments?
“Because the applicant pool is shrinking,” Kleinknecht said. “We’re looking at an applicant list of only 101 people” right now, he said. “When I started here, that (pool) was thousands of people.
“I just think somebody really needs to step up and say this is the right thing to do, because it’s going to cost us a lot of money in the long run,” he said. He pointed out that “it takes a good 11/2 years from the time (new recruits) take the test to go through the academy” and get all the training they need to get out on the road.
Not having continuity and officers whose faces people know means “you lose that community feeling with the police officers,” Kleinknecth said, and “if we become a transient department … the officers themselves aren’t going to care as much about the community because they’re only going to be here for two or three years.”
“It also makes it a lot harder to diversify the police department,” he said.
Currently, West Haven is 51 percent white, 21 percent Hispanic, 19 percent black, 4.4 percent two or more races, 4.2 percent Asian, 0.4 percent other and 0.6 Native American, he said.
The police department is 79 percent white, 6 percent black male, 1.7 percent Hispanic male, 1.7 Asian male, 10.4 percent white female and just under 1 percent Hispanic female, Kleinknecht said.
Officer Paul Butler said that when he was hired five years ago — knowing there was no pension — “I was fine with it.” Higher-ups “told me they were really optimistic about getting it back,” but “with the change of administrations and the financial issues, we’ve seen nothing.
He was born and raised in West Haven and “this is the only department that I’ve wanted to work for.” A 401(k) “will get me by” if he stays healthy, he said. “But the likelihood of me getting injured is greater than somebody working a desk job.”
At this point, at age 27 and single, with no kids, he’s not going anywhere. “But when that changes, I might have to leave,” he said.
“I see the officers that have left, and they’re excelling in the departments that they transferred to, and it’s disheartening,” Butler said. He worries about what “we’re missing out on that because of the pension.”
In addition, “We’re spending so much money between hiring, training, compensating all these officers that end up leaving … It might just be more affordable or reasonable to put some sort of plan in place that would … retain those officers.”