Central Falls, R.I. — In a small mill town in New England, dozens of retired policemen and firefighters are feeling the pain of what they see as a broken promise, offering a glimpse into what could happen to thousands of public workers in Detroit facing massive reductions in pension payouts after the city’s declaration of bankruptcy.
Donald Cardin became a firefighter at age 20 in Central Falls, R.I., a town just north of Providence that filed for bankruptcy in 2011. He was making $60,000 a year as a fire chief before retiring at age 42 in 2007 to take care of his wife Lana, diagnosed with thymic carcinoma, a rare cancer with extremely low survival rates.
The couple relied on Cardin’s health insurance, which required no copay, to cover Lana’s $8,000-a-month treatment. Cardin worked a part-time contracting job to make up the difference between his $34,000-a-year pension and his former salary.
But that all changed in 2011 when Cardin, and his fellow firefighters and policemen, were called to a meeting at the local high school, where state-appointed receiver Robert Flanders warned them that the city would not have enough money to survive if pensions were not cut. Weeks later the city would file for bankruptcy.
“After a lifetime of service, with the stroke of a pen, Judge Flanders changes the rest of our lives and doesn’t care,” said Cardin.
Bruce Ogni, 53, president of the Central Falls Police Retirees Association, won’t forget that day, either.
“All of a sudden they dropped this on us. There was no real negotiation. Flanders came in and said the city is in big trouble, we need half your pension and your medical,” he said.
‘Like I’ve been robbed’
Beyond trouble covering medical bills and basic needs, former public servants say their golden years have been stolen from them. After a lifetime of working to save the lives of others, the ability to enjoy their own lives has vaporized.
Joseph Laurie, 62, who worked as a fireman for 35 years, said, “I feel like I’ve been robbed.”
“We do nothing anymore,” Laurie said. “We can’t afford to go out and eat, we can’t afford shopping, we have no hobbies, we can’t travel. We’re basically stuck in our house.”