Invalid deal among new allegations against fire dept.
Allegations surrounding purported abuse of the sick time payout system utilized by Warwick firefighters that has allegedly amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars in overpayments in recent years has once again come to a boil this past week, as multiple news stories refocused attention on an issue that has been simmering since budget hearings commenced this spring.
In the past week, it has come out through media reports, primarily through the Providence Journal, that the Warwick Fire Department and its corresponding union had entered into a so-called “side agreement” with the city in 2013 that enacted a contractual change which allowed firefighters to cash in on unused sick time once a month rather than once a year.
However, Scott Avedisian (who was mayor at the time) said on Friday that no such agreement ever made its way to his desk, nor did it make its way to the city council.
“It happened during my administration, it's just not something I was involved in,” Avedisian said.
The Beacon obtained a copy of the agreement, dated April 23, 2013, which indeed featured no signature from Avedisian. It does, however, have signatures from city solicitor Peter Ruggiero (as a witness), then-fire chief Edmond Armstrong and then-union president William Lloyd.
Asked of the arrangement, Mike Carreiro – the current fire union president – said that the agreement was an “addendum” to the 2012-15 fire union contract at the time, and that it was necessary for calculation purposes to ensure that firefighters were able to accrue their maximum of 20 sick days per year, but also ensure they could only get paid for 15 of them.
Firefighters get 1.66 sick days per month, which equates to about 20 per year. If a firefighter can accrue 140 unused sick days, they can begin to monetize those sick days at 75 percent of their value (meaning one monetized sick day is worth 1.25 day’s pay). In the original contract language from the 2012-15, this was to only happen at the end of every year. The so-called addendum changed that to a monthly process.
According to Carreiro, when a firefighter isn’t able to monetize a sick day, the entirety of the 1.66 days gets carried over to the next month and is added to the bank, accumulating towards 140. Once they hit 140, if they monetize an unused sick day, they are be reimbursed for the 1.25 days and the remaining .41 day has to roll over to the next month to ensure that the math still adds up to 20 sick days a year.
However, it is this process of rolling over of the remaining .41 days that is at the heart of the alleged wrongdoing levied by community activists as early as February of 2016, when Warwick resident activist Rob Cote first started lobbying to the Warwick City Council about numbers that didn’t seem to add up in regards to overtime and sick time payouts within the fire department.
This spring Cote, working with former gubernatorial candidate, president of data analytics firm Simpatico Software Systems and political watchdog Ken Block, gathered sick time payout sheets that reflected sick bank amounts and monthly payouts for the past three years – corroborated with accountability sheets that logged when firefighters called out sick from work in that same span – and found numerous inconsistencies.
Included in their findings was multiple firefighters accruing above the maximum number of 140 unused sick days allowable by contract – apparently the result of carrying over the .41 days from a monetized sick day – which seemingly has allowed some firefighters to take multiple sick days in one month and yet still get paid for unused sick days at the end of that month due to an inflated balance in their overall sick bank. In total, Cote and Block tallied the overpayments to amount to nearly $250,000 over the course of a three-year period from 2015 to 2017.
Despite these findings, Cote insists he has been summarily ignored by city administrators and the city council in the two and half years since he has brought these reports forward. He also laments the amount of resistance he feels he is facing in trying to access the same data from 2012-14 in order to create a clearer picture of these types of inconsistencies. Cote also feels that Avedisian should have to answer questions regarding the allegations, as he believes Avedisian knew of the flawed system.
“Peter Ruggiero should be immediately fired. Avedisian and his entire executive staff should be brought in before the state police and sworn under oath and testify as to the events leading up to this debacle,” Cote said on Monday.
Carreiro admitted on Friday that the contractual language is “obviously ambiguous and vague,” and said he couldn’t comment further on the side agreement because he wasn’t the union president at the time it was drawn up. Block and Cote contend that such an agreement is not legally enforceable without council approval.
On the Matt Allen Show on WPRO on Monday afternoon, contracts attorney Vincent Ragosta – notable for his role as a mediator during the Warwick Teachers’ Union prolonged contractual dispute, and now working as a partial arbitrator on behalf of the city of Warwick regarding the grievance filed by the fire union in regards to the side agreement – gave a particularly compelling answer in regards to the legality of side agreements.
“Side agreements, per say, are not unlawful…You can have a fire chief forming a side agreement with a union to resolve a particular issue, or to create a benefit. That's essentially collective bargaining,” Ragosta said. “However, merely because you formed an agreement doesn't necessarily make it a valid one. If the side agreement is struck, it then has to go through the process of ratification, and often that's not done.”
In this case, there has been no indication that the side agreement was put through any official ratification process.
Mayor Joseph Solomon – who assumed the duties of mayor on May 16 following Avedisian’s stepping down – apparently also does not believe the side agreement was an enforceable policy change, as he suspended the process of carrying over the .41 days in July, which brought about a grievance from the fire union that was denied by acting fire chief Marcel Fontenault and upheld by Solomon – which automatically sent the grievance to the aforementioned arbitration process that is ongoing.
During his appearance at a mayoral forum on Thursday, Solomon said that he was awaiting findings from both Ward Fisher & Co and the audit being conducted on behalf of the Warwick City Council by Providence CPA firm Yarlis, Kaplan, Santilli & Moran (YKSM), which was initiated in June. He would not commit to any action regarding restitution of funds or punitive consequences prior to getting those reports.
“When I get those results before me, I will act accordingly based on the facts that exist within those results, and the information obtained with the arbitration process currently occurring,” he said.
The fire union has employed the services of Ward Fisher & Co LLP, a CPA firm based out of Warwick, to conduct an investigation into the sick time payout practice and assess if they had made any errors in calculating the sick time payout.
“There's been a lot of speculation and misinformation and we want to get to the bottom of this just as much as they do,” Carreiro said of hiring the firm.
Allegations of intimidation
On top of the allegations of financial wrongdoing, the fire department got swept up in another media storm involving Block last week when his business was visited by the Warwick Fire Department’s Fire Prevention Office for an impromptu inspection last Wednesday, citing an anonymous tip had led them to believe there were fire code violations at his place of business on Altieri Way in Warwick.
Block said that the reasoning for the inspection was “laughable,” as he merely leases the space and nobody would be able to access any part of the building equipped with emergency lighting in order to see a violation and make a complaint. To Block, the visit was about more than an inspection, as he had appeared on the radio earlier that week to discuss the sick time payout issue and filed an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request to acquire any and all side agreements penned during Avedisian’s administration earlier that same morning.
“The point is he was here sending me a message, and he sent the wrong message,” he said. “That message was don't screw with us or we'll screw with you.”
The visit prompted Solomon to visit Block at his business. Block said Solomon apologized and promised to get to the bottom of why he was visited on the same day of his radio appearance and APRA request. According to Carreiro, the visit was simply a matter of protocol.
“The fire prevention office gets calls all the time. They act upon it and that's what their job is to make sure the building is safe for the public and our members,” he said. “It's not an intimidation, that's not a game we play. We’re not thugs or what they claim us to be. We come to work do our jobs and do our best to serve the people.”
On Saturday Solomon was asked about the incident. He said the timing of the inspection bothered him and that he is digging into the matter.
The Beacon filed an APRA request of its own to acquire any documentation associated with the anonymous complaint and the ensuing inspection. The request was being processed at press time.