Town officials object to firefighter’s costly absences; Volunteer time raised OT bill

The Boston Globe
July 26, 2009 Sunday

BYLINE: By Megan McKee, Globe Correspondent

SECTION: REGIONAL; South; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 1005 words

Veteran Rockland firefighter John Sciara has missed more than a thousand hours of work in recent years to volunteer at the county retirement board, the state firefighters’ union, and a labor negotiation committee, records show.

The arrangement, which had the prior approval of town officials, has cost town taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in overtime paid to those who fill in for the absent firefighter. In at least three years, it helped Sciara collect overtime himself.

For calendar years 2006, 2007, and 2008, the town paid Sciara his full salary, then allowed him to come back and fill in for absent firefighters, a move that gave him an additional $66,980, according to town payroll records. During those years, Sciara earned an average of $97,174, even though he had missed 20 percent of his regularly scheduled work hours over a three-year period from July 2005 to June 2008, according to records reviewed by the Globe.

While being paid by the town, Sciara missed shifts to take Plymouth County Retirement Association trips, including weeklong conferences in Florida and California, according to records from the Fire Department and the retirement board. He routinely missed work beyond his allotted vacation and sick days to volunteer as recently as last year, Fire Department records show.

Town administrator Allan Chiocca halted the practice when he discovered it last year. The town demands the retirement board repay it for lost wages. The board is refusing and the firefighters’ union is challenging Chiocca’s halt of the practice.

“This is a blatant disregard for the community,” Chiocca said.

Chiocca, who was appointed in June 2008, said he noticed the Fire Department’s overtime budget was almost 70 percent spent three months into fiscal year 2009. He then learned of Sciara’s arrangement. “There’s absolutely no reason that the town should be subsidizing volunteer activities,” said Chiocca.

Sciara, a 58-year-old lieutenant who has been with the department since 1976, said he has been unfairly targeted by Chiocca and the new legal counsel. “This is a common well-known practice that has gone on for many years before 2005,” he said. He said he has served on committees and boards since 1986 and all missed time was approved by the department. “I don’t just walk in and walk out. I’m not the boss.”

Chiocca said that although previous fire chiefs and Rockland’s former town counsel thought Sciara’s absences were permissible under union contracts, he and the current town counsel, John Clifford, disagree.

The most recent fire chief, J. Michael Sammon, who retired in November 2008, refused to comment. “I’m retired now,” he said in a brief interview. “I want nothing to do with it.”

Sciara said that although Rockland may not benefit directly from his activities, his endeavors are worthwhile. “The most recent chief, Mike Sammon, he went to meetings: the International Fire Chiefs convention, the legislative conferences. What’s the direct result the town of Rockland got out of that?”

He also pointed to his volunteer service after September 11 and with the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Katrina. That fiscal year, Sciara’s FEMA service represented 48 of the 436 work hours he missed for voluntary activities; the rest were for union, labor negotiation committee, and retirement board work, the Fire Department records show.

Town officials have asked the Plymouth County Retirement Association, the board that manages pensions for the county’s public employees, to pay back $10,000 in wages they say the town wrongfully paid Sciara from fiscal years 2006 to 2008. After the retirement board refused, the town appealed that decision with the state Contributory Retirement Appeal Board.

During the three-year period, Rockland paid Sciara while he traveled to New Orleans; Palm Springs, Calif.; Hollywood, Fla.; Virginia; New York City; and Hyannis to attend retirement board conferences and meetings. He also regularly attended monthly meetings at the board’s Plymouth office on Rockland’s time. Sciara’s trips cost the retirement system more than $15,000 in travel expenses.

Under state law, retirement boards are responsible for paying members for time missed from work. The retirement board’s executive director, Bill Farmer, said the board would have paid Sciara directly. But the town mistakenly paid Sciara, and now the retirement board is arguing that it is not liable for Sciara’s wages.

Farmer defended Sciara’s travel as necessary for understanding the complexities of financial investments and to investigate potential investment vehicles. “It’s more time-consuming than people think it is,” he said of retirement board business.

Sciara also serves on the state Joint Labor Management Committee, a governor-appointed committee that has oversight over local police and fire collective bargaining statewide.

Chairman Samuel Zoll said the committee – an equal mix of union and municipal management representatives – must help settle union contract disputes. “They put in countless hours” to head off impasses in a state that doesn’t allow public safety workers to strike, said Zoll.

Sciara said he believes the State Labor Relations Commission will side with him when his union’s grievance is heard in September, and that his absences are only now an issue because the town administration is not satisfied with the union. The firefighters have been working without a contract for three years.

“I was a longstanding union president for 25 years. I am a district vice president [of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts]. I’m the top gun so they’re coming after me,” he said.

In criticizing Sciara’s work pattern, Chiocca cited Rockland’s dire financial situation. Despite passing three overrides totaling $2.8 million less than two months ago – money needed to maintain the town’s services – the town has no cash reserves.

“We’re a working class blue-collar community barely keeping its head above water,” he said.

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com

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