There is no way for us to sugarcoat the recent findings by the American Arbitration Association, which on Monday ruled in favor of the Warwick Firefighters’ Union that the City of Warwick failed to properly enshrine pension reform efforts into the collective bargaining agreement not once, but twice, resulting in a $2.6 million (at least) meal that the city’s taxpayers will now get to eat.
The whole situation is a mess. A complicated, confusing mess where there is more than enough blame to go around.
Mayor Solomon wasted little time in throwing former Mayor Scott Avedisian under the bus for failing to ensure that the pension reform language was actually included in the collective bargaining agreements for the fire department, despite being the one to present the ordinance, which created the tiered pension system and touted its financial benefits to the city council in 2011.
He and partial arbitrator Vincent Ragosta both raked Avedisian for not taking the fire department to interest arbitration when they showed resistance to the pension reform and – as we know now – refused to officially agree to including any such language in their contracts.
We agree with Ragosta’s assessment that this quasi-agreement between Avedisian and the fire union, where it appears that Avedisian was simply hoping that the fire department would go along with the pension reform without it being contractually mandated, was at the very least a risky move and at the worst was wholly irresponsible.
The city, Ragosta argued, could have made a valid case at interest arbitration during negotiations for the 2012 contract that pension reform was necessary to the fiscal health of the city, and it is likely that an arbitrator would have agreed – especially since the pension reform was unanimously supported by the city council, mayor’s office and the other two collective bargaining units, both of which did codify the pension reform language into their contracts. This would have forced the fire union to accept pension reform officially through the contract language and prevented this whole debacle.
While we understand City Council President Steve Merolla and Mayor Solomon’s points of view that they were forced, as council members during the contract negotiations, to trust the information brought to them people such as former city solicitor Peter Ruggiero, we also won’t let them off the hook so easily before getting more information.
It was Solomon who has touted his 2006 legislation that required the city council be privy to tentative contract agreements prior to their ratification. The purpose of this oversight should not merely be to take the administration at their word 100 percent of the time. The council is charged with asking questions, getting clarification and pushing hard on issues – especially issues as potentially impactful as widespread pension reform.
We would need to view fiscal notes from the 2012 and 2015 tentative agreements for the fire department, police department and municipal workers unions in order to see if there were any indicators that the pension reform was not truly being implemented and accounted for within the fire department. If the fiscal notes reflect savings from pension reform for the fire department, then blame does not fall on the city council after all, as they would have to trust the fiscal note was prepared and presented factually. However, if the police and municipal fiscal notes showed savings in pension payments that the fire department did not, that would amount to a huge oversight on their behalf.
Lastly, left out of his press conference was any blame coming from Solomon directed at the group that had the most control over the situation as a whole – the Warwick Fire Department’s union.
Union president Michael Carreiro said on Tuesday that the union was pleased with the ruling and that they have been committed to resolving the pension issue “while not burdening the city's taxpayers.” We find this statement particularly contradictory.
By refusing to be flexible on overwhelmingly popular pension reform, the fire union has ensured that a city already embattled by a potential $18 million structural deficit will now face one closer to $21 million – without even broaching the concerns caused by a school department that faces $12 million in cost increases next year.
Will the fire union be satisfied with this ruling as they head back to the negotiating table to try and come to a successor agreement to their contract that ran out this past summer? Will they be willing to commit to no pay or benefit increases so as to not burden the already overburdened taxpayers?
There are lessons to be learned from this situation, and people to be held accountable, but unfortunately the consequences of these types of situations will fall, as they always do, on the backs of taxpayers in Warwick.