Mayor Joseph Polisena has a blunt assessment of what the “evergreen” contracts bill under consideration at the General Assembly would mean for municipalities.
“[It would] do cities and towns in,” he said.
And if the legislation – which recently received the backing of the House Committee on Labor and has also been introduced in the Senate – were to become law?
“Give [the unions] the keys, shut the lights off, lock the doors, give them the keys, give them the checkbook,” the mayor added.
Polisena said the bill – which would allow expiring contracts for teachers and municipal workers to remain in effect indefinitely as negotiations continue – would open the door for unions to have what he described as a “lifetime contract.”
Polisena said the teachers’ union has already settled its contract, but the town is currently negotiating with one of its municipal workers unions.
Gov. Gina Raimondo vetoed a version of the “evergreen” contract proposal in 2017. Polisena said he would lobby to the governor to do the same if the legislation reaches her desk again this year.
“If that passes, we might as well just throw the keys in and just throw our arms up in the air. You really lose your negotiating power,” he said. “I think it’s bad policy. It really … handcuffs communities, the cities and towns, the mayors, the town administrators, the town managers and the Town Council. I know the Town Council’s against it.”
Polisena said the council plans to vote on a resolution opposing the bill during its meeting in May. The mayor also said he has spoken with School Committee Chairwoman Janice D. Mele, and he has received word that the committee opposes the measure as well.
Brian M. Daniels, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, joined the opposition through an op-ed that appears in today’s Sun Rise.
“Without an expiration date to compel parties to negotiate, municipal officials will not be able to make realistic and need changes – particularly in a recession when employees are better off keeping what they already have,” he wrote.
Polisena said he plans to soon send a letter to the members of Johnston’s legislative delegation, as well as Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio and Raimondo, imploring them to stand against the bill.
The mayor called the Johnston collection of representatives and senators “a good group,” but said he will make it known around Town Hall if they vote in favor of the “evergreen” contract bill.
“If they vote for it, then I’m going to put a letter in the tax collection office saying they voted to raise your taxes because that will have a definite and profound impact,” he said.
When asked what the town’s approach would be if the bill is signed into law, Polisena said there is none as of now.
“We might as well give [the unions] the keys. We have no approach,” he said. “We, meaning the taxpayers, we lose our bargaining power at the table. Just give them the keys. Lock the doors, shut the lights and give them the keys.”
Conversely, Polisena supports a separate piece of high-profile legislation passed by the House last week. House Bill 5662 and Senate companion S747 would mandate firefighters repaid overtime if they exceed 42 hours per week.
Polisena, a former firefighter, said Johnston already operates on a four-platoon, 42-hour work week. The bill faced opposition from districts – namely Tiverton, Central Coventry and North Kingstown – that operate on a three-platoon, 53-hour work week, beyond which firefighters are paid overtime under federal law.
Daniels, unlike Polisena, spoke out against this legislation as well in his op-ed.
“With the highest fire protection costs in the nation, Rhode Island should not be setting a lower threshold for overtime than required under federal law, which would only raise personnel costs instead of investing scarce tax dollars into lifesaving equipment,” he wrote.
Polisena said the bill will not have much impact on overtime rates in town. He said his opinion doesn’t stem from his former career as a firefighter, citing previous legal entanglements with his department.
“I like the four platoons because, you know the old saying – it ain’t broke, so why fix it?” he said. “So I have no issue with the four platoons that we have now. It’s not like I’m leaning towards them, because believe me when I tell you, you can ask them, we battled.”
Josh Block, press secretary for Raimondo, told the Sun Rise in an email on Monday that the governor will continue to have conversations with municipal leaders, unions and General Assembly members as the bill heads to the Senate.
“Should this legislation reach her desk, she will carefully weigh the concerns of all impacted parties,” Block said.