With the trial over the state's 2011 overhaul of the public pension system looming, retired public employees suing the state overwhelmingly accepted a proposed settlement Monday.
Leaders of the coalition representing the retirees urged them to accept the deal before the vote at Twin River Casino, saying a trial would be too risky and the case could drag on for years on appeal.
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Roger Boudreau, who leads the Rhode Island Public Employees' Retiree Coalition, told the group he understands their anger and frustrations but asked them not to base their decision on those emotions. Retirees voted 1,168 in favor and 332 against the proposal.
The proposed settlement includes a cost-of-living increase in 2017, a year earlier than planned, and increases once every four years instead of every five for retirees covered by funds that are not 80 percent funded. The cap for calculating the benefits would increase for some retirees, and the calculation would be based on a new formula using both the performance of investments and the Consumer Price Index.
All retirees would receive a $500 stipend for the next two years. Those who retired by June 30, 2012, could receive up to an additional $2,000 before the increase in 2017.
The retirees' coalition represents about 7,500 people, the largest group of retirees in the lawsuit.
The trial is scheduled to begin April 20. Carly Beauvais Iafrate, an attorney representing the retirees, told the group it could be difficult to win.
Some retirees were not happy with the state's offer but wanted to move on. Others were angry the state isn't giving them what was promised when they retired and said they don't want to give up. Many feared the state would cut their benefits again in the future.
"I'm not excited by the deal, but it's the only game in town. We're backed into it," said John Riley, a 73-year-old retired teacher.
Barbara L'Europa, a 58-year-old retired state employee, said she wasn't surprised by the final vote tally, but she's disappointed.
The retirees, along with public sector unions, sued over higher retirement ages and cuts to cost-of-living increases that were designed to save the state $4 billion over 20 years.
The retirees and the state will now work to formalize the agreement.
Frank Williams, a retired Rhode Island Supreme Court chief justice who is working to broker a settlement, is meeting with other unions this week.
Williams told the retirees he knows the deal is a hard pill to swallow, but accepting it is the right thing to do.