Fire dept. grilled on sick time, accounting practices
City Council President Steve Merolla said on Monday that the Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council (RIPEC) would be, at the behest of Acting Mayor Joseph Solomon, performing analyses of all city departments to try and better assess the financial situation left behind by former Mayor Scott Avedisian.
This analysis of city finances will include the Warwick Fire Department, a department that faced about three hours of questions from the council and members of the public during last week’s budget hearings. Questions included inquiries into the department’s sick time policies, changes of shift procedures and how the department has consistently exceeded its overtime budgets each year.
Acting Chief Marcel Fontenault said that overtime has been driven by the department being undermanned due to retirements, sick time and on the job injuries. The overtime deficit for FY18 was projected at over $1 million and has nearly exceeded $8 million in total budgetary overruns since FY03.
Fontenault said that if the department could consistently keep its full complement of firefighters at 220, the overtime costs would significantly diminish. However, the department has been unable to maintain that level of staffing due in large part to unforeseen retirements. The department is currently devoid of a fire chief, an assistant chief and 13 firefighters due to retirements, and Fontenault said another 17 firefighters had put in their one-month notice for retirement at the time of the hearing.
“I'm hoping something is done so we don't lose them,” Fontenault said, indicating that some of them would be inclined to stay only if a successor agreement to their expiring contract is reached.
However, some on the council were not satisfied with the explanation for the overtime costs.
“Your overtime has never been low. It has never been low,” said Ward 5 Councilman and finance committee chair Ed Ladouceur during the Thursday evening budget hearing. “This is just an issue that continues, regardless of what your complement is.”
Ward 1 Councilman Richard Corley asked Fontenault if the department had done any analysis into their minimum manning requirements to see if there was any room for adjustments going into the next contract so that they do not need to rely on paying people overtime to fill in for vacancies. Fontenault said no such analysis has been conducted, but that he had met with Acting Mayor Joseph Solomon to discuss various possible changes to policy going forward into a new agreement.
“Until that kind of analysis is done, it's going to be very difficult to see whether there can be something done other than hiring our way out of this,” Corley said. “And we can't hire our way out because we already have more people leaving than we can train and put on the job in the next 12 months.”
Corley is referencing how only 24 new recruits can be graduated from the city’s training academy at a time. Classes take six months to complete. Warwick business owner and chairman of Watchdog RI, Ken Block, asked Fontenault if the department had considered allowing firefighters to be trained at other academies from outside Warwick to help hire more to address the staffing needs.
“It doesn't say in the contract that they have to be trained here, but it only makes sense to train them here,” Fontenault answered.
Sick time, accounting practices called into question
Block continued his line of questioning by asking about how the department keeps track of sick time and monetizes unused sick days for firefighters who have achieved a maximum rollover bank of 140 sick days.
Currently as outlined in their contract, once a firefighter reaches a bank of 140 unused sick days (they get 20 sick days per year, which equates to 1.66 sick days each month), they can start cashing in 75 percent of those excess sick days at the end of each month. So, for example, if a firefighter goes an entire month without using any of their 1.66 sick days, they are entitled to a cash payout of 1.25 days for those unused sick days based on whatever their salary is. If they take two or more sick days, it should be subtracted from their overall bank with no payout at the end of each month.
However, utilizing accountability sheet and sick time data retrieved by Warwick citizen Rob Cote encompassing most of FY17, Block told the council that it is apparent there are serious accounting flaws in how unused sick time is handled by the department resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars being paid out in error.
The data suggests that, instead of additional sick time accrued being subtracted from the bank, the remaining 25 percent of that time is being added to the bank, enabling a firefighter to bank more time than they should be receiving. In one case, Block shows a firefighter who took two sick days still received about a half day’s worth of payment for that month due to a balance of excessive time in the sick bank that, contractually, shouldn’t be available in the first place.
“Collectively for the year, this error is well into the six digits of money that was not paid per the contract. I would suggest that you suspend the sick day payouts immediately until, A, you can work out the accounting, and B, figure out how you can get reimbursed for the moneys that were improperly paid,” Block said. “If you imagine this is a 10-year problem, it can be millions of dollars. It's a substantial problem.”
Block criticized how the financial record keeping for what amounts to millions of dollars occurs on a spreadsheet, with no oversight and no accountability into how its data is entered.
“On a million-dollar line item, you shouldn't be doing the record keeping on a spreadsheet. I think that's incredibly risky and there's no controls on it,” he said. “That's a whole series of critical problems that must be dealt with.”
Rob Cote then took to the microphone to expand upon other points of critique.
“This is a conversation about fiscal management. This is not a conversation in any way to disparage the wonderful work that these public servants do,” he qualified. “These questions are not an attack on the individuals, their skill set or how they perform in the service of the public. This is a financial conversation which should be devoid of any type of emotion.”
Cote said that his and Block’s analysis of the data from FY17 showed that firefighters who had banked 140 days of sick time received the maximum available payout or a partial payment for unused sick time, despite calling out sick during those months, nearly 300 times when they should have received no payment.
As a result, Cote asserts, each of these days incurs a cost equivalent to 3.75 days, since the firefighter gets paid their normal salary for that day due to calling out, collects 1.25 in unused sick time and the firefighter who has to cover their shift gets paid time and a half. “That’s a problem that has to be addressed,” Cote said.
Going further, Cote referenced an “enormous amount of mathematical errors” that present throughout the data in FY17. He cited firefighters who jumped from having 69.56 days in the sick bank at the end of April to having 140 days at the end of May. Vice versa, he showed how some firefighters saw their bank decrease from 140 to 127 in one month’s time – which isn’t contractually possible.
“Whether that is a data input error, which is most likely what it is, or a software error, it is an error for a program that computes moneys that are paid out from the taxpayer coffers. And it has major mathematical errors in it,” Cote argued. “Payments should be suspended until these are rectified.”
Cote continued his line of questioning to include the change of shift policy, which he believes has been utilized for a long time to preserve sick time and vacation time for firefighters to monetize later in their careers. He cited nearly 300 changes of shift taken in FY17 that were never reciprocated.
When Fontenault confirmed that there was no written policy in place to dictate when firefighters had to work a shift for the firefighter in compensation for them after having one of their shifts covered, Cote said this is in violation of the city’s Charter.
“You either have a contract or you don't have a contract,” Cote said. “In the city of Warwick, according to our City Charter, there is no such thing as a verbal contract.”
Merolla inquired about the sick leave and change of shift policies as well, targeting the accusation that firefighters have utilized changes of shift and sick time to work other jobs outside the city.
“If there's evidence that that happened, I think as a group there needs to be stronger controls and mechanisms in place,” he said. “It reflects on all the other officers that are working hard and doing the right thing. One or two bad apples, or several, give the whole department a bad reputation, and that's not right...I would like to trust people and know things are going right.”
Merolla agreed that the information put forward by Block and Cote should be reviewed by a third party to assess the legitimacy and potentially provide more insight. He said on Monday that this work, to his knowledge, had already begun, as representatives from RIPEC were in attendance at Saturday’s meeting.