Bill would raise retirement age for police, fire officials

NATALIE BLAIS

NATALIE BLAIS

By LIESEL NYGARD

For the Recorder

Published: 11-10-2023 5:52 PM

As a way to help cities and towns retain police and firefighters longer, a local lawmaker has filed a bill that would allow them to work in public safety roles until age 72.

Under state law, emergency services personnel such as police officers and firefighters cannot work past the age of 65. However, through a piece of special legislation known as a home rule petition, these personnel can seek approval to work until age 70.

State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, filed bill H.2449 because of how frequently home rule petitions are filed for individual towns within the 1st Franklin District, which Blais represents. According to the text of the bill, it will allow a member of a police or fire department to serve until the age of 72. The act would not take effect until it has been adopted by a vote of the local legislative body, meaning a city or town.

“With town approval [the bill] would make it so that towns are not having to do these individual home rule petitions for individual members,” Blais said. “If we were to pass this legislation, not only would the age be increased to 72, rather than 70, it also would just make it a little bit easier for towns to be able to continue to employ fire and police members.”

The bill was introduced in February and had a hearing on Oct. 31. Blais said the Joint Committee on Public Service will now take into account any testimony submitted and determine if it will be reported out of committee.

Among the Franklin County towns to seek home rule petitions this year alone are New Salem, Wendell, Northfield and Bernardston.

In March, New Salem voters adopted an article authorizing their Selectboard to petition the Legislature to pass a bill allowing Fire Chief Joe Cuneo to serve until age 70, his retirement or his non-reappointment, whichever occurs first. Wendell voters adopted a similar article at their own Town Meeting, as Cuneo serves as fire chief for both towns. Cuneo turned 65 in October.

At their Annual Town Meeting in May, Northfield voters likewise petitioned the Legislature to allow Fire Chief Floyd “Skip” Dunnell III to continue serving until either Dec. 31, 2026, or until the date of his retirement or non-reappointment, whichever comes first.

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In June, Bernardston Annual Town Meeting voters followed suit with respect to their fire chief, Peter Shedd, seeking to allow him to serve until age 70. Following this approval, Bernardston Town Coordinator Lou Bordeaux said the town reached out to Comerford and Blais, and bill H.4064, which seeks to continue Shedd’s employment, was filed on Aug. 21.

However, holdups in the legislative approval process can sometimes lead towns to need to reconsider who will serve as chief.

In the case of Bernardston, bill H.4064 had a hearing on Sept. 26. As of Nov. 8, the Joint Committee on Public Service is reviewing the bill before potentially moving it forward.

Shedd, who has served as fire chief since 1996, was placed on leave by the Selectboard on Oct. 18, as he was about to turn 65 years old and the bill has yet to be passed. Shedd said that because he’s on a leave of absence, he also lost his position as a member of the Massachusetts Fire Service Commission, a role he took on in early 2022.

“I am just trying to serve my department and town,” Shedd said, voicing frustration with the process and lack of guidance. “I am not going to leave my department hanging in limbo. … I will continue to support my fellow firefighters and the citizens of Bernardston.”

Bordeaux said Bernardston Selectboard Chair Stan Garland suggested asking town counsel for an opinion on allowing Shedd to serve in a volunteer position until the special legislation is passed. Since Shedd has been placed on leave, Assistant Chief Lloyd Grover was appointed interim chief on Oct. 31.