PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The long-awaited trial pitting a group of retirees who opted out of Providence’s 2013 pension settlement against the city finally started Monday, with several former firefighters explaining how they’ve been affected by the loss of their cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).

The bench trial, which could last more than a month, is expected to include testimony from former Mayor Angel Taveras and Michael D’Amico, the city’s former director of administration, as well as several of the retired firefighters or police officers who filed the lawsuit two-and-a-half years ago.

Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter is presiding over the trial. She also approved the city’s pension settlement, as well as a separate settlement over the state’s 2011 pension overhaul.

Known colloquially as the “opt-out case,” the lawsuit was filed in November 2013 by more than 60 former public employees who refused to support a settlement between the city, its municipal unions and retirees that froze 3% COLAs for 10 years, eliminated 5% and 6% COLAs forever and shifted how pensions are calculated. The deal also shifted retirees over the age of 65 to Medicare.

During their testimony Monday, retired firefighters Robert Waters and Roger Farmer explained that the loss of their COLAs has created uncertainty in their lives and the lives of their families.

Waters, who rose to battalion chief during his 24-year career in the Providence fire department before becoming chief of the fire department in Wellesley, Massachusetts, said the loss of his 5% compounded COLA has forced he and his wife to put “international travel plans” on hold. He also explained that he’s been unable to help one of his sons as much as he’d like because the strain on his finances.

“Because we’re afraid,” Waters, 68, said. Although he said he and his wife, a retired state employee, remain in good health, his “nightmare” is that she’ll get sick and he’ll have to put her in a nursing home.

During a cross-examination by William Wray, one of the attorneys representing the city, Waters acknowledged that he and his wife live off of four pensions, which combined to pay them nearly $153,000 in 2014. Waters also acknowledged that he purchased a BMW in 2014, after the city changed his retirement benefits. The line of questioning from Wray drew groans from some of the 25 retired public safety workers gathered in the gallery.

Farmer, 60, said he joined the fire department at the age of 32 and remained there for 11 years before he was forced to retire following a back injury. His tax-free accidental disability benefit is $3,432 per month. He said his 3% compounded COLA has been frozen three times since he retired in 1999.

“I have a whole family that depends on me,” Farmer said. He said he tried to work as an administrator at East Providence High School, but left the job four years ago because of his disability.

The pension settlement was touted by Taveras as one of several steps – he also negotiated payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) agreements with the city’s major nonprofit hospitals and colleges – the city took to avoid bankruptcy in 2012. Taveras said at the time the deal would reduce Providence’s unfunded pension liability by $170 million.

Although the vast majority of the city’s retirees did agree to join the settlement – those who didn’t respond were automatically considered part of the agreement – 65 retirees chose to file the suit. The group argues that Providence didn’t explore all of its options for improving the city’s finances, including selling the Providence Water Supply Board and securing even more financial support from local nonprofit institutions.

If the opt-outs prevail, their pensions would continue to grow, totaling more than $11 million over 10 years.

The retirees’ attorneys include Stephen Burke, Kevin Bowen and Thomas McAndrew. The city’s lawyers are Wray, William Dolan and Nicholas Nybo.Editor’s note: The original version of this report incorrectly stated that retirees who didn’t vote on the settlement were automatically counted as “yes” votes. Retirees who didn’t opt-out of the settlement were automatically included in the agreement, but they weren’t “yes” votes.

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