Bridgeport doles out $1.2 million to workers who stick around

February 18, 2017

BRIDGEPORT — The city shelled out nearly $1.2 million at the end of last year to over 800 public employees as a “thank you” for sticking with their jobs.

And not just unionized rank and file workers. Big shots, too, get so-called longevity bonuses after so many years on the city payroll.

Elected and appointed officials like the mayor, the police and fire chiefs, the city attorney, the budget director, even the registrar of voters.

Longevity payments for time-served are not new to the public sector. State employees earn them, as do those toiling for other big cities like Hartford and New Haven. In Bridgeport the checks arrive around December.

But in tough fiscal times this public sector perk — dare it even be called a tradition -- has come under fire as no longer practical or affordable.

Longevity was eliminated for state managers a few years ago. And many state government unions agreed to phase it out as part of new contracts. Civilian workers hired on or after July 1, 2011, are no longer eligible, and state police eliminated it for new members of the force as of July 1, 2015.

Kevin Maloney, spokesman for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said though it appears longevity bonuses are “still widely prevalent in unionized and other town contracts ... I would not be surprised if there was some curtailment in this new tighter fiscal environment.”

”It’s something to look at. Think about,” said Bridgeport City Councilman Scott Burns, a chairman of that legislative body’s budget committee, which come April will be working with Mayor Joe Ganim to craft a new city budget.

Burns, formerly a teacher in Berlin, is aware of longevity pay. Educators receive the bonuses as well.

Burns accepts the argument offered by union heads that “it makes sense to throw a little bone to those employees who have been around a long time and have a lot of value.”

A pension booster

Those bones are meatier for some than others, with a handful of Bridgeport employees earning over $3,000 and a few hundred others over $1,000. The lowest payment last year was $108.38.

Whatever the amount, it all gets counted toward pensions.

Cops in Bridgeport who have been on the force for at least a half decade are eligible for an annual bonus of $75 per each year with the department. Most other city workers have to put in 10 years before qualifying for the same $75-per-year longevity bonus.

”It’s an incentive for you to stay here is what it basically comes down to,” said Sgt. Chuck Paris, the police union president, adding longevity payments have been part of the contract for years. “I’m sure something was taken away to get it. That’s usually how these things work.”

Of the 2016 bonuses -- totaling $1.18 million -- five individuals, three firefighters, two police officers, earned over $3,000. Deputy Police Chief James Honis, hired in 1970, who was paid $180,455 last year, making him one of the top city earners overall, topped the longevity list with a $3,450 bonus.

”Wow,” said Burns. Some on the council have been questioning the monetary worth of Honis and the three other deputy police chiefs, given the department’s budgetary and manpower constraints.

Burns said that when already well-compensated staffers are receiving longevity checks, “It makes you start to wonder what’s the purpose?”

Chief Armando “A.J.” Perez, who joined Bridgeport’s Finest in 1983, received $2,475. He was 19th on the longevity list, and among the 181 individuals who earned bonuses of over $2,000. Also among that group, Fire Chief Richard Thode ($2,175), R. Christopher Meyer, City Hall’s top lawyer ($2,025), Mark Anastasi, Meyer’s predecessor, who stayed on in that office ($2,400), and Nestor Nkwo, the budget chief ($2,025).

Four hundred and fifty six city workers got bonuses over $1,000, with the remaining 172 earning under that. That last batch included Democratic Registrar Santa Ayala ($825) and returned Mayor Joe Ganim ($900).

Ganim, as previously reported, is being treated by the personnel department as if he worked 13 consecutive years for the city. Ganim was mayor from 1991 until 2003 when he was toppled by a corruption conviction. He was re-elected in 2015 and “bridged,” meaning his prior time in office counts toward longevity pay, vacation time, and health benefits, rather than starting from scratch.

Good for morale

Like the state, New Haven has eliminated longevity payments for non-union managers, according to Laurence Grotheer, a spokesman for Mayor Toni Harp.

”(And) it’s one of those things being renegotiated by certain bargaining units as we speak,” said Grotheer.

Av Harris, a Ganim adviser, called longevity “sound public policy” and “a very small line item in the city budget that actually reaps substantial benefits to the taxpayers through good government and efficient and effective delivery of government services.”

Dwayne Harrison is head of the 700 strong National Association of Government Employees. NAGE last year negotiated concessions with Ganim to avoid layoffs, canceling a 2.5 percent raise scheduled for this year.

Harrison said longevity bonuses are “a good ‘thank you’ from the city to boost morale, especially in tight economies like we have now.”