Council votes to reopen charter to explore pension reform

Trumbull’s Town Council voted Monday night to impanel a new Charter Revision Commission, as requested by First Selectman Timothy Herbst.

Herbst told the council that he would like the Charter Revision Commission to focus on adding language to the charter that would require the town to fund the pensions each year at the actuarially recommended contribution, or the ARC, amount. The commission would bring proposed language back to the council, which would then send any potential changes to a referendum that would appear on the November ballot.

Herbst said his recommended pension change was about math and not politics.

“I’m not recommending a wholesale revision of the charter again, but this is targeted and specific,” Herbst said.

The pensions have been a problem that both parties have failed to address in the past, he said.

“There is no way we can invest our way out of this problem,” Herbst said.

When Herbst entered office, he said, the town pensions were funded at 27% and now are at 33%. He said adding language to the charter will ensure no future administration plays politics with the pensions.

Herbst said that Standard & Poor’s, which recently upgraded Trumbull to a AA+ bond rating, supported the idea. If the town can get the pension in better shape and attain a Aaa bond rating, that means reduced interest rates when the town borrows money for capital improvements and overall better fiscal health of the town.

Council member Vicki Tesoro said she hoped the charter commission would consider language that would allow the council to vote out of funding at the ARC, in case of emergencies.

“We are not fortune-tellers,” Tesoro said.

Council member Tom Christiano said he supported adding the provision to the charter so much that he didn’t support adding a stipulation to get out of it.

Council member Cindy Penkoff said she would be voting against the charter change, simply because she didn’t think it was necessary to legislate proper pension funding.

“I don’t believe you mandate good behavior,” Penkoff said. “Hartford is a great example.”

Penkoff hailed Herbst for making the right decisions for the town’s fiscal health.

Council member Tony Scinto was also against opening the charter.

“I think it’s a good idea but I’m not in favor of opening the charter to do it,” he said.

Tesoro made a motion to form a six-member commission, rather than five members. She said the extra member could ensure the commission didn’t act politically. Her motion failed. The motion to form a five-member commission passed 15 to 5.

Herbst suggested both the Republicans and Democrats put forth commission members who are not politically active but have a good understanding of the community.

“We don’t want it to turn into political theater,” Herbst said.

As for other potential charter changes, Herbst said the council could ask the commission to keep the focus narrow and specific. He suggested two other potential changes, including removing charter language on an Arts Commission, since the town has had trouble finding volunteers for it. He also suggested removing language about the Ethics Commission that allows complaint hearings to be in private. Herbst said that could violate Freedom of Information requirements.

Later this week, Herbst lauded the Council’s decision to form the commission.

“You have to bring long term reform to the pension and post-employment benefits you are providing to your retirees so they are financially sustainable to the taxpayer,” Herbst said. “That is why we have placed all new employees into a defined contribution retirement plan, to reduce the Town’s long term unfunded pension liabilities.”