Image: Kenny Gilbertie
David Friedman  /  msnbc.com
Ken Gilbertie, 46, has been a dispatcher for the Westport, Conn., Fire Department since 1987.
By John W. Schoen Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 4/5/2011 9:52:48 AM ET 2011-04-05T13:52:48

A lot of boys play with fire trucks when they’re little. Most soon outgrow their fascination. For dispatcher Ken Gilbertie, the attraction of fighting fires never faded.

“It has always been in me,” he said in an interview punctuated by the squawk of radio chatter in the communications center of the Westport, Conn., Fire Department. “Being a firefighter is not something that you do; it’s something that you are."

Firefighting runs in Gilbertie’s family: His father was a volunteer, and his grandfather and two cousins were career firefighters. As a kid, Gilbertie, 46, remembers spending Saturday nights watching the TV show "Emergency!" as it followed the adventures of two fictional paramedics.  Gilbertie became a fixture at the local firehouse and raced through his paper route after school to watch his real-life heroes in action.

“I used to chase everything that I could reasonably get to on my bike,” he said.

Lately, though, Westport firefighters have been cast in a less favorable light, reflecting growing national sentiment about unionized public workers.

Westport firefighters have been working without a contract for nearly two years, and the town’s legislative body, the Representative Town Meeting, rejected a new four-year pact as too generous after the union and town officials reached a tentative agreement. Negotiations are now in arbitration.

Matthew Mandell, a member of the Representative Town Meeting, which is similar to a Town Council, said that while there's plenty of public support for town workers, raising wages and benefits has become a much tougher sell to his constituents working in the private sector.

"They’re not doing as well as they were doing before because they’re not under contract," he said, referring to his constituents. "They’re living out in the real world where they’re employed at will. They don’t have these guarantees. They’re paying more for their benefits, and this isn’t occurring in the public sector."

Gilbertie said the union recognizes that money is tight and made concessions, including agreeing to having its members pay a bigger share of health care costs.

“I didn’t take this job to get rich,” said Gilbertie, who is vice president of his union local. “You take a job with AIG to get rich. That’s not why I took this job.”

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As a result, he said, taxpayers are giving closer scrutiny to public workers' pay and benefit packages than they did when the economy was booming and jobs were plentiful.

Gilbertie, who began working as a part-time dispatcher in 1987 and moved to full-time a year later, gets an annual salary of $54,000 plus $14,000 to $16,000 in overtime. He said he pays about 4 percent of that into a defined benefit pension plan that will pay him roughly 80 percent of his base salary after 35 years of service.

Another 5 percent of his salary goes to pay for health insurance, which comes with a $10 co-pay for doctor visits and a $200 deductible. The town also pays his premiums on a $50,000 life insurance policy, he said.

He and his wife, a nurse, live in a 1,200 square-foot, two bedroom townhouse with his wife’s parents. His grown son is an accountant; one of his two daughters is in college. He drives a 1999 Mercury Mountaineer with roughly 200,000 miles on it; his wife drives a 2002 Saturn with 120,000 miles.

'Lower middle class'
It is, he said, a solidly “lower middle class” lifestyle.

“I’m paying the bills, I’m putting food on the table and keeping a roof over my head and have a little left over to take a vacation every year-and-a-half or two years,” he said. “I do consider myself lucky compared to a lot of people.”

The proposed new contract would keep the current salary scale unchanged for the first year and then give pay raises of  2.75 percent for the next three years. It also doubled health insurance co-pays and raised workers payments for health insurance premiums to $36 a week from $31.

Compared with many of the taxpayers he serves, Gilbertie's family lives modestly. Located about an hour by train from Manhattan, the town of Westport has a median household income of $151,000 — three times the national average. The median home price is roughly $1.2 million — more than six times the U.S. average of $185,000.

That pricey real estate helps keep local property tax rates about half the average in Connecticut towns and cities. Last year Westport homeowners paid $14.80 in taxes for every $1,000 in their home’s assessed value, or about $14,000 on a $1 million home. Homeowners in Hartford paid $72.79 per $1,000; in New Haven, homeowners paid $43.90.

The housing boom was good to Westport homeowners: property values roughly tripled between 1997 and 2006. When the good times were rolling, elected officials found ways to tap that rising home equity wealth. The town budget roughly doubled, and there was heavy borrowing to fund an ambitious overhaul of the school infrastructure. Total debt outstanding swelled from $3.1 million in 1998 to $170 million last year.

Like most towns and states, Westport’s budget also was expanding to cover the rising costs of pension and health care costs, according to Gordon Joseloff, Westport’s first selectman — the equivalent of mayor — who recently proposed a roughly 3 percent increase in next year’s town budget.

“What we’re raising their taxes for is not because we’ve increased our costs of operating the town,” he said. “We’re paying to put money into health care costs. I call it the second-biggest department in the Town of Westport: It’s the Department of Pensions and Health Care. And it’s second only to the Board of Education.”

To rein in costs, town officials are pushing to convert workers’ pension plan to a defined-contribution plan in the next few years. Union leaders chafe at the idea that higher benefit costs are behind the fiscal crises at state capitols and town halls across the country.

'Preposterous'
“It’s preposterous,” said Larry Dornan, a spokesman for the state chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents Westport municipal workers. “This economic crisis happened because of the financial crisis, because of broad tax cuts, because of the military run-up. It had nothing to do with AFSCME negotiating a pension for its members.”

As private sector workers have lost ground over the past decade, public employees' benefits have held up relatively well, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. From 2000 through 2010, wage gains were similar, with both public and private workers seeing wage growth of about 30 percent. But the gains in benefits for public workers rose 61 percent during the period, compared with just 42 percent for private-sector workers.

Higher pension costs in Westport aren’t so much a function of bigger monthly retirement checks as an increase in longevity. Workers will be collecting more checks later in life, so pension accounting rules require that those increased liabilities have to be funded today.

Health care costs present the town with a similar problem. Town workers have roughly the same access to health care that they did a generation ago. But the cost of new drugs, tests and procedures cost substantially more. Health care premiums have risen 138 percent in the past decade, far outstripping wage increases.

The strain on state and local budgets has intensified over the past several years as governments grapple with to a new accounting rule that requires them to report the full impact of post-retirement benefits rather than just pay them as they’re incurred. Ironically, the rule designed to insure that those benefits were fully funded has made them a bigger target for cutbacks.

“If we were to fund them at the levels that the actuaries recommend, we would have to greatly increase our tax rate,” said Joseloff. “There’s the rub.”

For Gilbertie, the appeal of the job hasn’t dimmed much since he dreamed as a kid that one day he would be working in the fire department.

“There’s a great deal of satisfaction when people call back after the call is over and say, ‘Your guys were wonderful. Thank you so much. I want to talk to the guys. Who was it that came?'” he said.

“And to know that their world is better because of something that I was directly in involved in. It’s huge.”

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