Selectmen voted 3-2 Wednesday to place a home rule petition question on the May 6, Town Meeting warrant.
The question — if approved by a majority of the 300-plus Town Meeting members — would ask lawmakers to pass legislation giving Swampscott the option to offer alternative retirement and health insurance benefits for new town employees in collective bargaining with unions.
Opponents in the audience in the high school auditorium Wednesday, including police, firefighters and teachers, said a Town Meeting debate hurts Swampscott, singling it out as a town interested in offering less to its future employees than other towns and cities in the commonwealth.
This perception will negatively influence the pool of applicants and, in turn, could put public safety and employees' personal safety at risk as well as the well being of their families.
As it stands, pensions and health benefits are mandated by the state.
Several speakers in the audience, including Herb Belkin, who supported the petition article going to Town Meeting debate, said it serves the interest of Democracy, giving a forum to a national and state issue that needs scrutiny.
Selectman Barry Greenfield introduced the petition idea, and said the town is having problems funding the mandated pension program.
He said the program is outpacing the town's ability to fund it and there is a $38.6 million unfunded liability looming.
Selectman Jill Sullivan said the liability has more than doubled in the past 20 years, and the town is spending more and more of its budget to fund pensions and health benefits.
Speakers took issue with the figures presented by the board.
Swampscott Firefighters Union President Jim Snow said he has paid more than $100,000 into his pension plan and the town enjoyed a 14 percent return on it last year, money that the town had at its disposal to invest.
Town Assistant Administrator Dave Castellarin said the $38.6 million figure was inflated — it's really about $34 million — and the town is on schedule to pay off its liability by 2030.
Aside from the numbers, some of the strongest arguments against the proposal came from those concerned about what such a plan would do to the town's reputation and workforce.
Lt. Tom Stephens, president of the Swampscott Police Department's union, said the home rule petition would single out Swampscott among the state's 351 municipalities as the place where employee benefits are under attack.
He said officers go to work in the morning knowing there is a possibility that they could be seriously hurt or worse.
For this reason it's important that officers have the confidence and ability to do their job properly.
Swampscott High teachers would not be influenced by this particular home rule petition, since they fall under a different fund.
Still, several of teachers spoke against the proposal, saying they care about the welfare of town employees and want to know that best possible police and fire department would respond to a school emergency.
Resident Bill DiMento disagreed with the thought that collectively bargaining for an alternative pension plan for new employees would adversely influence the pool of applicants.
Ultimately the town's taxpayers are being taxed to the hilt, he said.
Swampscott has the third highest tax burden in Essex County and the eighth highest tax burden in the state, he said.
Some audience memebrs including former Swampscott Selectman Paul Levenson argued that the best route would be a measured approach.
He suggested selectmen report at Town Meeting on what is at stake and how it could be remedied rather than put a petition question on the warrant.
In the end selectmen said the proposal merited discussion and possible action.
Selectman Chairman Rich Malagrifa said annual trillion dollar federal deficits do not bode well for pension funds performing well in the future. The big stock market losses of 2008 could happen again, so the nation needs to consider actions to safeguard future pensions, he said.
Selectman Glenn Kessler said he is concerned what will happen to employees' pensions in the future.
"I think we should go to Town Meeting and discuss it," he said.
The lone dissent on the board came from David Van Dam, who thought the home petition action was too hasty.
Correction: Glenn Kessler voted againt the proposal. The original article had him voting for the proposal.
Here is a copy of the Home Rule Petition Article:
To see if the Town will vote to authorize the Board of Selectmen to file a petition with the General Court for special legislation as set forth below to allow the Town to provide new employees hired after the effective date of this act retirement and/or health insurance benefits outside of the provisions of Chapters 32 and 32B of the General Laws c. 32 and 32B; provided, however, that the General Court may make grammatical or editorial changes of form only to such bill, unless the Board of Selectmen approves amendments to the bill before enactment by the General Court, and that the Board of Selectmen is authorized to approve amendments which shall be within the scope of the general public objectives of the petition; or to act in any manner in relation thereto.
An Act relative to Retirement and Health Insurance Benefits in the Town of Swampscott
SECTION 1. Notwithstanding the provisions of section 4B of Chapter 4 or of Chapters 32 and 32B of the General Laws, or of any other general or special law to the contrary, the town of Swampscott shall have the option at the discretion of the board of selectmen of providing a retirement/pension plan and/or health insurance benefits to employees hired after the effective date of this Act, including health insurance to such employees upon retirement, on such terms and conditions as said board of selectmen determines to be fair, reasonable and equitable, and in the best interests of the town. Prior to providing such plans or benefits, said board of selectmen shall hold at least one public hearing, notice of which shall be provided in a newspaper of general circulation in the town in each of two weeks immediately prior to said hearing. Said retirement/pension plan and/or health insurance benefits shall be subject to bargaining under chapter 150E of the General laws for employees represented by employee organizations that are covered by said chapter. The Town may provide different premiums, contribution rates, plan designs, and/or retirement benefits to different groups or classes of employees.
SECTION 2. Section 1 shall not affect the health insurance or retirement benefits of employees or retirees that were employed for the Town prior to the effective date of this Act. Section 1 shall also not affect the retirement/pension plan of any teacher or retired teacher regardless of their date of hire.
SECTION 3. This act shall take effect ninety (90) days following its passage or upon the July 1st immediately following its passage, whichever date is later.