Former Norwich Public Utilities manager awarded full pension

Norwich — The Personnel and Pension Board on Tuesday approved a pension calculation for former Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda.

The move came after a nearly hourlong presentation by his attorney arguing the pension board had little authority to change wages earned and taxed over the years and provisions in a Jan. 22 separation agreement with the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners that called for Bilda to resign Dec. 31 and retire April 10.

The pension board voted 4-1 Tuesday to approve an annual pension payment of $147,297.22, with board member John A. John voting against the final calculation. But the board voted unanimously in three separate motions prior to the calculation to approve provisions of the separation agreement and to include raises he had received that had not been voted on by the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners and bonus payments Bilda received that he applied to a deferred compensation plan.

Attorney Jacques Parenteau, representing Bilda, argued passionately Tuesday that Bilda should receive his full pension based on 30 years as a productive NPU employee and appointed official amid questions posed by the board concerning pensionable income calculations.

In a 16-page rebuke of the pension board’s attorney’s position that the city could exclude provisions of the separate agreement, Bilda’s raises since 2012 and deferred compensation payments since 2014, Parenteau countered what he called “an extraordinary effort that is being undertaken to deny Mr. Bilda his full pension.”

Parenteau on Tuesday disputed the positions presented by attorney Kenneth Plumb in a report to the pension board July 11 that said the board would be justified in excluding from Bilda’s pension calculations the provision in the separation agreement that allowed Bilda to resign on Dec. 31 effective with his retirement on April 10, and to exclude raises he received from 2012 to 2018, as well as payments NPU made from 2014 to 2018 into Bilda’s deferred compensation plan.

The separation agreement was reached after Bilda was placed on paid administrative leave Nov. 15, 2018, a week after he and four other officials with the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative were indicted on federal corruption charges for their roles in CMEEC’s trips to the Kentucky Derby and a West Virginia golf resort.

Parenteau opened his presentation Tuesday with a statement pointing out the “extraordinary” proceeding by the pension board in investigating Bilda’s pension calculations. Parenteau noted that the pension board already has accrued $10,240 in legal costs for that review. He noted that over his 30-year career, Bilda never did anything that warranted disciplinary action, and from February 2016 to February 2017, he served in the dual role as NPU general manager and as city manager, saving the city the city manager's salary of $130,000.

“John Bilda is now a controversial figure in the city of Norwich,” Parenteau said.

In his written report, Parenteau urged the pension board to “reject any public pressure to punish Mr. Bilda by taking action to deny him his earned pension.”

In a detailed written report to the pension board, attorney Plumb discredited the Jan. 22 separation agreement that paid Bilda a nominal $10 per month from January to April 10, while he did not work in his former position.

“Evidence and arguments exist to support the position that Mr. Bilda was not an employee for purposes of being eligible for credited service during the period of January 1, 2019-April 10, 2019,” Plumb wrote in his July 11 report to pension board Chairman Paul Schroeder.

Parenteau said Plumb’s assertion that the pension board could undo the separation agreement would “ignore the legal consequences” of dismantling the agreement. He argued the pension board does not have the authority to “change the terms of Mr. Bilda’s employment.” Parenteau said the separation agreement showed that Bilda still was employed by NPU from January to April 2019.

Parenteau argued Tuesday that the pension board’s role is limited to just administering the pension fund and calculating the benefits based on age and years of service. Parenteau presented that Bilda’s pension should be calculated on the salary of $218,327.

Plumb, the pension board’s attorney, reviewed raises awarded to Bilda since his appointment as general manager in 2006. Starting in 2012, meeting minutes and contract agreements showed that Bilda’s raises and other compensation increases were not approved by the utilities commission, but were worked out between Bilda and utilities commission chairmen, starting with former Chairman James Sullivan, who also is charged in the federal indictments.

The utilities commission did vote unanimously Nov. 14, 2014, to authorize Sullivan to negotiate amendments to Bilda’s employment contract. Plumb wrote that, although Bilda was paid the raises from 2012 to 2018, because the utilities commission did not approve them, “the Pension Board is justified in excluding those monies from pensionable income when determining Mr. Bilda’s pension benefits.”

Parenteau said the full utilities board was aware of the negotiated raises and ratified them by authorizing the chairman to negotiate the increases and again in the separation agreement agreeing to all raises, bonus payments, life insurance contributions and deferred compensation payments.

“His wages were approved,” Parenteau said. “A settlement agreement was entered into.” He said the deal was unanimously supported by the utilities board and it specifically stated the raises were affirmed.

Plumb added that deferred compensation payments made into Bilda’s 457(b) plan from 2014 to 2018 also could be excluded, because those were meant to reimburse Bilda for the amount of his salary he contributed into the deferred compensation plan — a separate retirement plan from his regular city pension plan.

Parenteau countered that the payment was made to Bilda as a bonus or reimbursement, and should be considered wages in the pension calculation, and it was Bilda's choice whether to apply it to the 457(b) plan.

In his conclusion, Plumb said the pension board would have to weigh the facts and evidence and the calculated payments with Bilda’s arguments in favor of a full pension and “the costs and expenses of litigation.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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