SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

June 1, 2009

Panel: DPW workers can retire at 55

By Chris Cassidy

Department of Public Works employees could retire at age 55 — 10 years early — under a bill at the Statehouse proposed by the Essex Regional Retirement Board and a Lynn lawmaker.

The legislation would give DPW workers the same status as police officers and firefighters, who can retire at 55 because of the inherent dangers of their jobs.

It would also cost taxpayers, who'd be on the hook not only for the extra 10 years of each employee's pension but for the added salaries and health insurance costs of their replacements.

"It's outrageous," said Ira Singer, the town administrator of Middleton, one of the 19 towns that pay into the Essex Regional Retirement Board.

"At a time when there's such scrutiny over pension costs ... to be looking at a bill that does nothing more than lump unnecessary and exorbitant costs back onto the Essex County Retirement communities is absurd. ... Shame on the board for submitting that legislation."

State Sen. Thomas McGee of Lynn, the bill's sponsor, said DPW workers deserve early retirement because of the physical demands of the job.

"If you're talking about working out in the streets doing the kinds of jobs that DPW workers do, it's a taxing job, and over time it impairs your ability to do the job," McGee said.

Still, no other municipal employees besides police, firefighters and certain electrical line workers can retire as early as 55.

"Most of the work our guys do involves driving trucks and other machines," Ipswich Town Manager Robert Markel said. "The day when the DPW got out and dug trenches with a shovel are over. These are the guys who plow the snow in the winter time with trucks and who ride on sidewalk plows."

Some DPW workers choose to work beyond 65, Markel said.

"We retired an employee at age 77 not too long ago," he said.

The Essex Regional Retirement Board — which represents towns like Boxford, Hamilton, Ipswich, Topsfield and Wenham — filed the bill at the request of local DPW unions.

"Once you get underneath a manhole cover and expose yourself to gases and all sorts of stuff, you tell me if you want to be down there when you're 63," said Lilli Gilligan, the board's chief operating officer.

Essex is the same board that recently approved a subtle language change that allowed police and fire dispatchers to retire five years early — at age 60.

It also spent $60,000 last year on a lobbying firm to guide a variety of bills through the Statehouse.

Gilligan said the board files its bills through McGee, a Lynn Democrat, rather than its own local legislators, because McGee is chairman of the relevant legislative committee, and because of his relationship with the retirement board's executive director, Timothy Bassett, a former Lynn state representative.

"The message is that pension boards work for employees," Gilligan said. "We provide future pensions for employees of government offices."

But they are pensions — and pension boards — heavily funded by taxpayers.

Markel said he wants the board's retirement funds moved into the state system or to have Ipswich withdrawn from the Essex system altogether.

"We need to have some credibility with the public," he said. "This system we have right now doesn't have any credibility with me and most people I talk to."

Gilligan said the Essex board has also filed bills that would save towns money, like requiring direct deposit and automatic health insurance deductions.

The DPW bill has been submitted in previous legislative sessions, and even Gilligan concedes it will likely go nowhere this time around.

Still, some town leaders are wondering how they can fund any extra employee benefits at a time of massive budget deficits.

"It seems like this is just more evidence that we're not being served," Markel said.

Staff writer Chris Cassidy can be reached at ccassidy@salem news.com.