Controversial fire issues cause firestorm in Norwich City Council debate

·5 min read

Jun. 22—NORWICH — Tempers flared and emotions ran high as the divided City Council debated controversial fire services issues, voting to create a fire services director position and rejecting a boost to volunteer firefighter retirement pensions.

Alderwoman Stacy Gould repeatedly called actions and comments by the Democrats on Monday "an insult" to volunteer firefighters, to the entire city fire services and to City Manager John Salomone. She said she was "disgusted" and accused the council majority Democrats of being "disingenuous" in rejecting a small volunteer district tax increase to boost volunteers' pensions while supporting the creation of a costly fire services director position.

"This is the hammer or the javelin we're going to throw at (the fire chiefs)," Gould said of the fire director position. "I will not be supporting this. Not whatsoever, no, never. I have too much respect for our chiefs and our city manager to do this job without having a babysitter at a cost of $200,000."

She and Mayor Peter Nystrom said the costs could be even higher with support staff, office space and supplies.

Alderman Joseph DeLucia shot back that he resented the accusation that council Democrats or the Public Safety Committee he chairs "holds hammers" over people's heads or "threatens" fire officials.

"That is not how I behave," DeLucia said. "That is not how I have conducted myself and I defy you to show me one example where I have. I would just say, you should temper your comments, because they are unprofessional."

DeLucia said the fire services director is about accountability for the fire services. He said the high level of cooperation among the paid and volunteer departments at the recent Roath Street fire downtown is not always the norm. If the fire was "outside" the paid district, he said, it might have been different.

"That is a fact, and we all know it," DeLucia said. "it's the dirty little secret nobody wants to say out loud. Well, there it is. Joe DeLucia just said it."

DeLucia and Nystrom later engaged in a brief shouting match, and at the end of the meeting, DeLucia apologized for being disrespectful. Nystrom accepted the apology.

Calmer arguments were presented by Democrat Ella Myles and Democratic Council President Pro Tempore Mark Bettencourt and Republican William Nash in support of the fire services director.

The council cut the $129,000 funding for the fire director from the budget last week, but supporters said the ordinance creating the position was a critical step. The council voted 5-2 in favor of the ordinance, with Gould and Nystrom opposed.

Nash, who had made an impassioned argument for the fire services position at a recent Public Safety Committee meeting, said he envisions it as an assistant city manager, who could take on other tasks under the direction of the city manager. He said for years, he has seen no progress in fire department relations by using "carrots" to get the chiefs and city leaders to work together.

"I just don't know what else to do," he said Monday. "I sat here for 12 years, and I've seen nothing go forward and now we have a chance at getting somewhere."

The rancor started when Democrats said they could not support a boost to volunteer firefighter retirement pensions, which supporters called a "stipend" or "relief."

Democrats said it would not be fair to increase pension payments to one segment — no matter how small — when city employees have had to accept reduced pension plans to save taxpayers money.

Democrats called it bad timing, coming one week after cutting $2 million from the city budget to avoid any tax increase.

City Comptroller Josh Pothier in a memo to the council estimated the proposed pension boost would increase the Town Consolidated District, or volunteer district, budget from $25,000 to $42,000, for a tax increase of $2 to $3 per year for an average assessed home.

The council rejected the increase 4-3, with the four Democrats against and three Republicans in favor.

"I don't think anyone up here is saying we don't thank or appreciate the job our volunteers do in the city," Alderman Derell Wilson said. "I think they do a phenomenal job."

Nystrom, who co-sponsored the proposed ordinance with Gould, said Democrats were "insulting to the volunteers and to firefighters in general." Gould said it's unfair to compare $200 to $300 per month in recognition of decades of volunteer service to retired city employees receiving about $5,000 a month in pensions.

Gould said the fund is a "thank you" to volunteers who get up at 3 a.m. or leave the Thanksgiving table to respond to fires or medical emergencies.

"I'm flabbergasted, absolutely flabbergasted," she said, "that 20 years of service, unpaid service to the city of Norwich, and now you're going to quibble over a $3 increase to the TCD residents. We're going to quibble about three bucks. Twenty years of service to the city."

During public comment period Monday, resident Brian Kobylarz asked why Gould was voting on fire issues, since she is a volunteer firefighter. After the meeting, Gould said her work schedule prevents her from qualifying for the volunteer pension relief program most years.

City Corporation Counsel Michael Driscoll likened her votes to council votes on budgets and tax issues that affect their own taxes. He said Gould is part of a group rather than an individual.

c.bessette@theday.com

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