The Warwick City Council voted Monday night to deny a budgetary request from the Warwick Fire Department seeking $120,000 for unspecified medical evaluations with the reasoning that the city has been paying for the evaluations unnecessarily since the 2012-15 collective bargaining agreement was struck.
Finance committee chairman and Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur said that the issue had caused the council much concern, leading them to consult with their legal counsel about the change in contractual language that occurred during the 2012-15 negotiation.
This change, as previously reported in the Beacon, regarded firefighters 45 years or older being able to request a yearly physical – which included an electrocardiogram, chest x-ray, complete blood count and urinalysis, as well as a treadmill stress test – at the expense of the city. The contractual change in the 2012-15 contract explicitly removed the city’s responsibility to pay for these tests, as they would presumably be covered by the firefighter’s health insurance plan through the city.
Despite this change, from 2012 until last year’s budget the city had continued to fund the line item associated with these medical evaluations to the tune of nearly $400,000. Even more puzzling, between FY10 and FY17 the fire department didn’t completely spend the budgeted $188,015, including a year in FY11 when the line item received an $80,000 allocation, yet only $58 of it was spent by the end of the fiscal year. Similarly, as of May 2018 the department has only spent $10 of its budgeted $60,000 for the medical evaluations.
“The department has continued to come before the city council requesting the same item,” said Ladouceur. “And it was something that, as I said, became a concern some time back. Unfortunately, sometimes these things take a little more time than we'd like to look into.”
Finance committee member and Ward 7 Councilman Stephen McAllister clarified that the denial of the line item would not mean firefighters would be unable to get medical evaluations, but rather it corrects a redundancy that had been unnecessarily funded.
“This doesn't mean that the fire department is not going to be able to get examinations, it's just for this particular line item that the city is not obligated to approve because it's already covered,” he said.
City Council President Steve Merolla agreed with McAllister’s point and asked for cooperation and understanding from the fire department for the council’s decision.
“We offer full examinations through our healthcare plan, which is a very good healthcare plan and has a $10 co-pay,” Merolla said. “I hope the department agrees with us, as the department agreed in their collective bargaining agreement, that this is an unnecessary expense for the city.”
Rob Cote, who had brought forward the issue regarding the medical evaluations – among multiple others – in prior years and again brought the issue to the attention of the council recently, said that the council had exercised an important step by denying the request but now had the difficult task of trying to find out where the unspent money from the line item had been redistributed.
“I would ask you to expand upon it just a little bit,” Cote said. “You've done a great job, but to close this out you actually need to follow the money and find out where it actually went.”
Cote said the council should gather a historical allocation of expenditures from the medical evaluations line item to see where the money was spent. Further, he said they should seek out any transfer resolutions from past years that would indicate where money from the evaluations line item was redistributed.
Unfortunately, as was pointed out by Merolla, accounting for transferred money from an under-spent line item within a department’s budget may not be so cut and dry.
“In many cases that money just goes into a general fund for the department, so to get an exact tracing...it goes into a pool of money and then comes out, so it's not an exact transfer from line item to line item,” he said. “Although there may be situations where that occurred, most of the time it doesn’t. It goes into the general revenue pot for that department and then gets expanded to whatever line items without knowing exactly where it got traced.”
Acting Chief Marcel Fontenault was not present at the council meeting, and did not return calls requesting comment on this story.