NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The hiring of a 52-year-old as a North Providence firefighter nine years ago has proved to be an expensive liability for taxpayers in the town and the state, Mayor Charles Lombardi told Target 12.
Stephen Campbell was sworn in as a frontline firefighter in 2003 under former Mayor Ralph Mollis, who is now Rhode Island’s secretary of state. Under the terms of his union contract, Campbell would have had to fight fires until the age of 72 to be eligible for a pension.
But after less than 10 years of service, Campbell has been granted an accidental disability pension for getting hurt on the job.
“For me … the day you hired this individual you hired a liability,” Lombardi said. “I have a hard time believing that this individual was the best choice for this job.”
Records show Campbell was out of work due to injuries for nearly half the time he was employed by the fire department. He was placed on “injured on duty” status 10 times in his near-decade as a firefighter, missing a total of 56 months of work.
Lombardi said Campbell’s final injury happened when he was temporarily filling in for a day at the higher rank of lieutenant, which boosted his pension to the higher salary.
As a result, Lombardi said, taxpayers will pay out an estimated $1.3 million in pension payments and benefits to Campbell over the next 20 years.
Town officials would not provide details about Campbell’s injury, but meeting minutes from a September meeting of the State Retirement Board’s disability subcommittee show the vote to grant his pension was 2-1. The dissenting vote came from Melissa Malone, a staffer in R.I. Treasurer Gina Raimondo’s office.
In a statement, a Treasury spokesperson said Malone felt “the documentation presented did not support granting an accidental disability pursuant to Rhode Island law.”
Campbell will start receiving approximately $3,300 a month in pension benefits beginning in December, according to the treasurer’s office. The money will not be taxed because the benefit is an accidental disability pension.
The state-run Municipal Employees Retirement System manages the North Providence Fire Department’s pension plan.
Lombardi said he was stunned to learn Campbell was brought on the job at an age when most firefighters are retiring.
“This is not a job for an older individual,” Lombardi said.
In an interview. Mollis said the town “had a process” that led to Campbell’s hiring during his tenure.
“In this case if a 52-year-old did well on the written, the physical, the oral [exams] and then went through the academy, we wouldn’t discriminate on age,” Mollis said. “So the buck does stop here and I did not put an age limit on the process, so if a 52 year-old passed everything then I have to respect that process and the committee.”
The North Providence Fire Department – which responded to nearly 7,000 alarms in 2012 – does not have an age restriction for employment. Lombardi said the town might explore creating one in the future.
Records show the average firefighter among the 18 hired in North Providence’s most recent class is 26 years old.
At least two communities in Rhode Island have a maximum age at which an individual can be hired as a firefighter: Warwick, where the maximum age is 30, and Narragansett, where it’s 31.
Campbell named three well-known politicians as references on his job application to become a firefighter: former Mayor John Sisto, who died in 2011; state Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence; and former town councilman Joseph Burchfield, who is now serving five years in a federal prison for corruption.
Campaign finance reports show Campbell donated $150 to Mollis the same year he was hired. However, Mollis said he did not feel political pressure to hire Campbell.
“I think it’s just commonplace to put someone in local government that they know as a reference,” Mollis said. “I guarantee all the applicants had similar names.”
Responding to a public records request, North Providence Fire Chief Leonard Albanese said there were 150 applicants to the fire department during the period when Campbell went for the job. Albanese said records show 66 of them passed all the exams.
“A written test was given; there is no record as to who administered the test, who corrected the test, and who took the test,” Albanese wrote in an email.
Steven Catanzaro was fire chief at the time of Campbell’s hire. He retired when Lombardi was elected mayor. Albanese said Catanzaro and two others from the fire department conducted interviews to whittle down the list to 20 candidates which included Campbell.
Albanese said Campbell finished tenth at the fire academy among the 20 candidates. In all, 17 of the 20 were selected to be firefighters over a course of several years.
Mollis said he was unaware Campbell missed nearly half his career to various injuries, but noted he doesn’t know if his injuries had anything to do with his age.
“In this particular case what was the injury that kept him out five years and did age play a factor?” Mollis said. “If yes, then of course I regret it.”
Lombardi said in examining Campbell’s employment history, he discovered the results from his medical examination were sent to the town one week after he was hired to the department. Lombardi declined to provide the medical information but said a physical exam for a firefighter candidate is enormously important.
“I would most certainly question the physical ability of this individual when he was hired,” said Lombardi.
Tim White ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @white_tim