Story and Photographs By John Murray
If he is re-elected in November, Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary has decided he will contact the city’s pension and benefits department on December 1st, and reactivate the $90,000 a year pension he earned during his thirty-year career in the Waterbury Police Department.
“I made a campaign promise in 2011 that I would not collect my pension in my first term,” O’Leary said. “I left $180,000 on the table, and I will not do that again. It was not a wise decision for my family. I could have used that money.”
O’Leary’s pension, which he collected for two years while serving as police chief in Wolcott, became a campaign issue in January 2011, a full month before he formally announced he was running for mayor of Waterbury.
Like most political back-stories in Waterbury, the factors that led Neil O’Leary to make the no-pension pledge are complicated, and swirl around a mix of his desire to serve the city, and his contentious relationship with former five-term mayor, Michael Jarjura.
O’Leary and Jarjura were headed towards a titanic collision in the 2011 municipal election, and Jarjura struck the first blow.
“Mayor Jarjura began a telephone survey in January 2011, and the first question was about my pension,” O’Leary said. “A whisper campaign started that implied I was going to run for mayor because of the money. That was not true. I could have left Waterbury a number of times to pursue opportunities that offered more money.”
Insulted at the implication of greed, O’Leary said he “over-reacted” and promised to forego his pension in his first term in office.
“That was a mistake,” O’Leary said, “and many of my closest friends and advisors told me not to do it. I wanted to show the voters that it wasn’t about the money, it was about trying to make a difference in the city.”
During the February 2011 announcement that he would seek the democratic nomination for mayor, Neil O'Leary stated, that if elected, he would take his $90,000 a year pension.
What O’Leary underestimated was that by foregoing his pension, his income would be $119,306, or 66% of what he’d been earning while he working as police chief in Wolcott, and collecting his Waterbury pension. While that might seem like an astronomical sum to many people in Waterbury, O’Leary has a complicated personal life. He lives alone in a house in the Country Club neighborhood of Waterbury, his wife lives in a separate house in Watertown, and an ex-wife lives with their 11-year-old daughter (who attends private school) in a third house in Waterbury.
When unforeseen family issues erupted in May 2012, O’Leary found himself cash strapped, and broke his campaign promise and reactivated his pension. A media firestorm erupted, and O’Leary was harshly criticized for breaking his campaign promise. Days later O’Leary reversed course and vowed to follow through on the promise. He took out a bank loan to get himself through his financial crisis, and put his pension back in the deep freeze.
If the voters of Waterbury like the job he’s done the first two years in office, and elect him for a second term, O’Leary said he will collect his $119,306 salary, and his $90,000 pension, and continue to work to move the city forward.
“In helping to solve major cases in Waterbury I made a lot of family sacrifices,” O’Leary said. “Most people will agree that I earned my pension.”
With the additional income O’Leary said he would be able to pay off debt, deposit money in his daughter’s college savings account, and will support PAL and the restoration efforts of Holy Land.
“The impact of me not taking money out of the pension fund was like a drop in the ocean,” O’Leary said. “I can make a bigger impact by donating some of the money I earned to projects I support.”
So thirty months after making the no-pension promise, what does Neil O’Leary make of the entire debacle?
“I’m disappointed in myself for succumbing to the pressure of politics,” O'Leary said. “I’m not going to give back $360,000 of money I earned. It’s not fair to my family. If the voters of Waterbury like the job I’ve been doing, they will re-hire me knowing that I intend to collect my salary, and my pension.”
O'Leary paused for a moment, and then said, "It is what it is."