Trumbull finance board votes to fund benefits study

Trumbull Police headquarters

Trumbull Police headquarters

Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

TRUMBULL — The town may have taken a step forward in re-examining its retirement benefits for employees — including police officers — as the Board of Finance voted earlier this month to allocate $40,000 for a pension consultant.

However, the funding still needs to be approved by the Town Council, which next meets on Jan. 5.

According to a letter from Human Resources Director Thomas McCarthy to Board of Finance Chair Lainie McHugh, the consultant would "would analyze potential changes to our current and future employees' retirement benefits and make recommendations for potential plan design changes, cost outs and risk."

About eight years ago, the town changed its pension plan from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan.

According to the United States Department of Labor, a defined benefit plan promises a specified monthly benefit at retirement. The promised benefit can be an exact dollar amount or it may calculate a benefit through a formula that considers such factors as salary and service.

A defined contribution plan does not promise a specific amount of benefits at retirement. In these plans, the employee or the employer, or both, contribute to the employee’s individual account under the plan.

This has posed a particular problem for the town's police department, which has had multiple officers leave for departments with defined benefit plans. That has helped contribute to an ongoing issue with retention and recruitment in the department, said Police Chief Michael Lombardo.

The department is short 14 officers, which has required Lombardo to move some officers from special assignments — including two of the town's school resource officers — to patrol.

"We’re still ordering people on a regular basis to work double shifts and we’re doing the best we can to provide the level of service that’s needed out there," he said.

In his letter, McCarthy said the company selected to do the analysis of retirement benefits, USI Consulting Group, quoted the town $29,000 for its initial scope of service. But town officials requested $40,000 to allow "contingencies for further work." 

During the Dec. 8 Board of Finance meeting at which the allocation was approved, the matter was discussed largely in executive session. When the board was back in open session, member Scott Zimov asked whether changing the pension plan was the best way to address the issues the police department is having.

"It appears (that we are) going the route of 'get a pension or don’t get a pension' and that’s how we retain people and there’s a lot of other ways to retain people besides pension or no pension," he said. 

Zimov said he's heard other communities using such tactics as flexible scheduling to relieve pressure on the police and improve retention. But McHugh said deciding the best method to retain officers wasn't the point of doing the study.

"I think the analysis is to see if it is financially viable for the town (to change the pension plan), not to see if it’s the best idea," she said.

Eventually, the board voted 5-1 to allocate the money.

The next step is the Town Council, and Lombardo said hopes it follows the path of the Board of Finance.

"I hope they do ultimately approve funding for the study and get the study started soon," he said.