Millinocket council cuts into retiree benefits

Posted May 14, 2009, at 11:41 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:19 p.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — Reid Campbell can’t begin to count the fists, knives and broken beer bottles he dodged during his 25 years as a town police officer when hundreds of river drivers and thousands of paper mill workers still worked and partied in town.

The number of bar fights and domestic disturbances the 62-year-old town man quelled are similarly lost in the haze of his recollections, as is any exact figuring of the motor vehicle accidents he investigated, maimed bodies he encountered or distraught victims he consoled.

Campbell does remember the seven suicides he investigated in 11 months during his rookie year in 1968 and the two homicides he handled before his retirement as a captain, the Police Department’s No. 2 man, in 1993. He particularly recalls with clarity the irate citizen he disarmed who came to a Town Council meeting wearing a sidearm.

Campbell doesn’t complain about his job, but did complain about councilors voting 7-0 on Thursday to end the health care benefits he and 47 other municipal retirees have enjoyed for decades.

“I worked for a lot less money, took a lot of risks,” Campbell told the council on Thursday. “I was OK with that because I knew I was going to get that benefit.”

He and other retirees — including firefighters and Public Works Department workers — complained that with the cut, councilors were essentially breaking the word their predecessors gave them.

“I think right is right and wrong is wrong,” retired firefighter Bill Levesque said. He added that as a negotiator of the town’s first firefighter contract, he and his union accepted 2 percent annual raises — far less than millworkers got — because “we would settle for benefits.”

“We were told that we would never pay an insurance premium for the rest of our lives,” he added. “Aside from that, you are reaching over dollars to grab pennies … We are dying, this group of 48 [people]. That is a sad fact of it. Where is the big benefit at in this time in our lives?”

The retirees named the municipal swimming pool and the razing of the former Newberry’s building as among the projects that cost millions that the town should have forgone to save their benefits.

Councilors saw no other option. Since 1999, the town’s portion of retiree health benefits has increased 89 percent to 112 percent, or from as little as $282.40 a month in 1999 to $599.44 a month in 2009, under a typical plan, Town Manager Eugene Conlogue said.

A projection done in 1999 predicted the cost of retiree health benefits rising from $399,000 that year to $837,000 annually by 2009 — an almost dead-on prediction, he said.

Under the town’s plan, starting in September the retirees will pay $47.96 to $151.30 a month for health benefits depending on their plan and number of people covered. The town pays the rest, but looks to phase out paying retiree health benefits, Conlogue said.

Retirees also will absorb all rate increases starting in January.

Councilors could make the cut unilaterally, as the benefits are part of the town’s personnel policies, Conlogue said.

Given the town’s radically depleted population since 2000, the temporary shutdown of the Katahdin Avenue paper mill — the town’s largest employer — decreasing amounts of outside aid and the recession, the cut might be only the beginning, council Chairman Wallace Paul said.

“This is obviously one of the more painful decisions that the council has had to make at this point,” Paul said. “My fear is that down the line we will be looking at this as the good old days, that it could be that bad.”

Councilor Michael Madore said he hoped the School Committee would adopt a similar stance.

“There is nothing I am going to say to these people that is going to make them happy,” Councilor Scott Gonya said, objecting to the retirees’ claims that they are the first hurt by town cuts.

“It could have happened a long time ago,” Gonya added. “I know that’s not going to make you happy, but we have looked at this and it’s the best we can do.”

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