Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur said he wanted to open the debate on an issue that has been ignored for too long – the city’s mounting liability for health care and post-employment benefits for city workers – when he introduced an ordinance to establish minimum co-pays and deductibles for active and retired workers.
It was more like he dropped a bomb than opened a door.
Instantly, there were claims that the seriousness of the situation is exaggerated and admonitions if he is truly looking for answers, then the first step should be to call all the parties together to mutually set a course of action.
But there’s no arguing Ladouceur had everyone’s attention.
Council Chambers were packed with active and retired city employees Monday night as two ordinances relating to employee benefits were on the docket. Both the Finance and Ordinance committees tabled action, after which the chambers cleared.
However, when the council convened, Ladouceur revealed he had made a mistake in drafting the ordinance.
“I’m not looking to take away health care from current employees,” he said, adding that the legislation would be amended. He said he was aware of the mistake prior to the council meeting and met with representatives of the fire, police and municipal employee unions to explain his intentions.
Nonetheless, there was a palatable uneasiness to the meeting. Unlike prior meetings where union contracts have been come before the council – and union members sit together in a block wearing similar T-shirts and, in some cases, carrying placards expressing their point of view – the audience was a mix of city workers. They were peaceable, applauding at times and eliminating their chatter when, during the Finance Committee meeting, Councilman Tim Howe forcibly told people to take their discussions outside the chambers, as he could not hear testimony.
City Solicitor Timothy Bliss said Tuesday he was pleased to hear that Ladouceur wasn’t looking to change the benefits of current retirees.
“If that ordinance were to be passed, it would be a major mistake,” he said. He predicted such an ordinance would embroil the city in long-term litigation with “no chance of succeeding.”
Ladouceur was buoyed by the respectful attention given the discussion.
“That says to me that most people realize this is a conversation that must take place,” he said.
Ladouceur said he met Tuesday morning with Walter Hartley, president of Local 1651 AFSCME RI Council 94, which represents about 230 city employees. He reported that Hartley wants to be a part of the discussion, adding that he wants him there.
“This isn’t about me,” Ladouceur said. “It’s about the people who elected me in the first place.”
He asks how AFSCME Council 94, which was represented at the meeting by lobbyist and senior staff representative Jim Cenerini, could question an ordinance that would alter health care benefits for future employees when state employees, also represented by Council 94, don’t get lifetime health care.
“Why is it OK for them and not right for Warwick?” he said.
In his comments before the Ordinance Committee, Cenerini observed that during the economic crisis of 2008, municipal employees made concessions that helped the city get through that tough time.
“We are willing to work with you and we are willing to talk to you. It should be done on our bargaining table, and not on someone else’s back. With that I look forward to seeing future discussion,” he said.
Ward 7 Councilman Steve McAllister, chair of the Ordinance Committee, said he and other members had not been contacted as to their opinions on the proposed legislation.
“Healthcare is critical to every individual and family. There are people on this council and in the public who have experience on healthcare issues and they should have been consulted. I also believe there should have been a meeting or an attempt to reach out to the employees and retirees that this has a direct effect on,” he said.
Ladouceur and City Council President Steve Merolla believe the legislation could save the city $5 million annually. In addition, they see it as stemming ever-increasing retiree health care costs that would have to be borne by the taxpayer and at the expense of funding needed to address the city’s aging infrastructure.
As it was noted that council would require a fiscal note to vote on the ordinance, no action was taken. The ordinance is expected to be on the Jan. 6 council docket.
As for the second piece of Ladouceur’s legislation simply labeled as an ordinance on “employee benefits,” the Finance Committee chaired by Ladouceur tabled discussion until January.
Asked about that bill, Ladouceur said the legislation has not been fully drafted and he prefers not to talk about his concept at this time.
“I haven’t started working on it. I’ve got enough of a firestorm started,” he said.
As for the measure that would set health care deduction and co-share minimums, Ladouceur is hopeful of having a meaningful dialogue, but he’s not backing away.
“We’re going to bring this to a vote and I would like to bring it to a vote where everybody is aboard,” he said.