From the perspective of City Solicitor Michael Ursillo who played a major role in negotiations, the firefighters’ contract approved on an 8-1 vote by the City Council Monday night is the first …
From the perspective of City Solicitor Michael Ursillo who played a major role in negotiations, the firefighters’ contract approved on an 8-1 vote by the City Council Monday night is the first step to addressing the unfunded liability of paying for health care and other benefits for municipal employees.
Firefighters can look at it as a win. First, they will receive more that 10 percent in raises over the next three years. Second, they won’t start contributing 2 percent of their pay to an OPEB Trust fund until 2025 and only if police and municipal employees agree to a similar provision. What’s more, the 2 percent contributions would help pay for their post retirement benefits, so, they’re getting it back.
And then there’s the perspective of about a dozen taxpayers who turned out Monday and Ed Ladouceur, the lone dissenting vote. They see the existing system as unstainable. First, they argue Warwick firefighters are already the highest or second highest paid in the state and between other benefits for active and retired members, taxes to pay for it will force people out of their homes. As he has maintained for the past year, Ladouceur reasoned retirees should co-pay for health benefits just as the active firefighters do. Already, he points out, the cost of retiree benefits exclusive of pensions exceed those for active employees who are sharing in those costs. Undaunted by Monday’s vote, he said Tuesday he will continue to seek change arguing if he didn’t he would forsake his pledge to represent the taxpayers and do what’s best for the city. As he sees it, maintaining the system, even with expectations of establishing an OPEB trust, the cost of benefits will increasingly burden taxpayers and force the city into bankruptcy.
He’s not alone. Former councilman and school committee member, Robert Cushman is among a group that includes Rob Cote, Barry Cook, Tara Levasseur and Cindy Wilson that share financial projections that unless changes are made higher taxes will drive people out of their homes. In the weeks ahead expect to find the same highly vocal group step up as the council reviews the release of the voter-approved $350 million bond to build new Pilgrim and Toll Gate High Schools and next year’s budget.
On these issues, neither the mayor nor the council appear to be as united as they were on the firefighters’ contract. On Tuesday, Mayor Frank Picozzi and City Council President Steve McAllister expressed concerns whether the two schools can be built for $350 million given the rising cost of materials or whether the job can be completed in five years as mandated in order to qualify for 52.5 percent state reimbursement. Furthermore, the administration has not determined whether to seek another extension of implementation of a revaluation that is believed would disproportionally increase taxes on the majority of single-family homeowners as a result of the hot real estate market of the past two years.
That’s the big picture.
On Monday night, the focus was on the fine points of the firefighter contract including how could the city guarantee that either police or municipal employees would agree to 2 percent OPEB contributions thereby triggering firefighter contributions. There are no agreements other unions would make similar agreements, or for that matter that unions or city leaders would keep the 2 percent OPEB contributions in future contracts. On Monday night, there was also a level of finger-pointing at the administration for failing to have the numbers on unused vacation pay and record keeping on sick leave. On multiple occasions, both council members and critics pointed to the 2015 firefighters contract that required new hires to contribute 1 percent of their pay to an OPEB trust. That agreement was never implemented because it enabled firefighters to take contributions from an irrevocable fund. Questions swirled over why, if the contract was changed by non observance of the provision it was not returned to the council for ratification. In addition, Ladouceur questioned why the council could not make changes by ordinance, as he had sought to do for healthcare co-pays for retirees, when the administration is hinging OBEP contributions on future contract negotiations. His point: an ordinance would set the ground rules for contracts and there be certainty as to the contributions.
In contrast to prior contract ratification sessions, this meeting was devoted solely to the firefighter contract and there was no prior review and recommendation of the finance committee. The council received an administrative briefing on the contract in executive session. That came under fire for being closed to the public. Also, Monday’s meeting was remarkably void of personal attacks or audience outbursts from either those in support of the contract or questioning. According to one count, as many as eight police officers were positioned around council chambers.
Following debate over how much time council members and members of the public would have to discuss the contract during which Ladouceur reasoned because of the importance of the issue, the 10-minute comment period should be extended that didn’t happen, Mayor Frank Picozzi gave an overview of the contract. He said compromises were made on both sides and reminded the council, theirs was an up or down vote. If rejected by the council the contract would automatically goes into arbitration. There was not the opportunity to selectively approve portions of the agreement.
Michael Carreiro, president of Local 2748, similarly characterized the talks that began last spring. He said the union has historically made compromises citing give backs on holidays and sick leave with the most notable being the elimination of family healthcare for retirees in 2015.
“It is to all of our benefit that the city also maintains a high standard in terms of compensation to ensure we not only attract well qualified applicants, but keep those firefighters already here who have shown they are willing to make the sacrifice this career demands.”
Carriero had the support of more than 60 firefighters who filled an entire section of the auditorium. They applauded politely and maintained decorum unlike pervious years when they heckled those opposing the contract. But then in prior contract reviews, the outcome was not as predictable. The singular surprise was Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix, who has consistently seconded Ladouceur’s motions to extent time for comments on the part of council members and the public and his been in line with his thinking that unless corrective measures are taken the city is headed for financial chaos. Rix said he is convinced the 2 percent OPEB contribution is a first step in the right direction and therefore he would be voting in favor of the contract.
Cote’s questioning of McAllister and Fire Chief Peter McMichael revealed both did not have details at their fingertips, which Cote argued was necessary to understand the contract and to effectively run the department. The administration largely viewed Cote’s research as efforts to embarrass them and for him to tout, “got ya” although the revelations raise relevant operational questions.
The contract is retroactive to last July gives firefighters a 2.5 percent raise in the current year followed by two years of 3.875 percent increases. The projected additional cost of the contract is $2.7 million.
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Business, Industry commerce and residents continue to stream out of Rhode Island. Why? Greed like this is a big reason.
Saturday, February 4 Report this