NEWS

Firefighter pact comes under fire

Agreement includes 2% OPEB contributions if other city unions sign on

By JOHN HOWELL
Posted 1/18/23

The Warwick City Council will be faced with accepting or rejecting a three-year agreement with firefighters that will cost taxpayers an additional $2.7 million over the life of the contract at a …

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NEWS

Firefighter pact comes under fire

Agreement includes 2% OPEB contributions if other city unions sign on

Posted

The Warwick City Council will be faced with accepting or rejecting a three-year agreement with firefighters that will cost taxpayers an additional $2.7 million over the life of the contract at a special meeting Jan. 30.

Under the tentative agreement hammered out by the administration and the union and ratified by the membership, firefighters would receive a 2.5 percent raise retroactive to June 30, 2022, and 3.875 percent raises on July 1, 2023, and the following July 1.

According to the 2022 RI Municipal Services report by the Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council, Warwick firefighters are paid an average of $95,207 making them the highest paid firefighters in the state.

“It’s a big increase that’s a big raise…a big impact,” City Council President Steve McAllister said in a call Monday. He emphasized the council cannot negotiate terms of the contract and should they reject the agreement it will automatically go to arbitration.

“It would be very expensive,” McAllister said of arbitration. He said arbitrators would compare the Warwick package with other municipalities and the contract “looks pretty much in line with other cities.” He explained the council went into executive session at its Dec. 19 meeting to hear the city’s negotiating team, Susan Nahabedian, chief of staff; Bruce Keiser, economic development direct ; Michael  Ursillo, solicitor and Peter McMichael, fire chief outline the agreement. Mayor Frank Picozzi was not in attendance. Council members were directed not to disclose and terms of the contract or to discuss what happened in executive session.

The full contract noting additions and deletions from the expired contract was posted on the city website last Thursday along with the fiscal note prepared by City Finance Director Peder Schaefer. No changes were made in the tentative agreement as a result of the executive session.

The cost of the agreement, and the fact that – despite two new classes of firefighters – overtime costs continue to exceed budget, are of concern to McAllister although as of Monday he was prepared to vote for the agreement. McAllister said overtime costs have already exceeded the budget for the current year and he projected costs would surpass this year’s budget by $1 million.

McAllister was complimentary of a provision that all firefighters pay 2 percent of their pay into a trust for post employment benefits, such as health care, in addition to pension contributions. This OPEB trust, however, would only take effect if in upcoming negotiations police and municipal employees agree to similar OPEB deductions. Assuming those unions and the city reach agreements, OPEB contributions of 2 percent of pay would commence on July 1, 2024. Picozzi said Tuesday those contributions would amount to $2 million annually.

Picozzi viewed the OPEB provision as a win for the city, but as he points out, only if the provision is ratified by the other two unions. He said he would not sign a police or municipal employees contract unless it includes the 2 percent OPEB contributions.

The overall firefighters’ agreement is a disappointment to former councilman and School Committee chairman Robert Cushman and Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur. Ladouceur has pushed for passage of ordinances requiring retirees to co-pay for health care at least to the extent of active employees and to increase the threshold at which active employees start paying for prescription drugs now set at $300 for singles and $600 for a family. A win for the city, albeit minor, those limits were increased to $600 and $800. During contract negotiations Ladouceur said he would not vote for the contract unless it included significant changes addressing the cost of health care for retirees.

Active city employees pay about 20 percent of their health care whereas retirees don’t share in the cost. The annual cost of active and retiree health care is $24 million of which more than $11 million is for retirees according to Ladouceur. He notes more retirees are receiving health care benefits than active employees.

 “How does that play out? In my business that would take me into bankruptcy court,” Ladouceur said.

In a phone call Monday, Cushman raised a number of concerns starting with the executive session to brief the council. Since no changes could be made in the agreement, Cushman said the public should have had the right to hear the presentation and resulting discussion. Pointing to the Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council report placing the average pay of a Warwick firefighter at $95,207, a Cranston firefighter at $71,550 and a Providence firefighter at $68,271, Cushman asked, “Did anyone look at that? Why are we such an outlier?”

“I’m sure Bruce [Keiser of the negotiating team] looked at that,” Picozzi said Tuesday.

Picozzi was surprised by the RIPEC numbers, questioning whether some elements of Warwick firefighter costs had been included in the computations but left out from other departments.

The figure does not cover overtime or benefits but may cover the following in addition to salaries: longevity, stipend, clothing allowance/maintenance, shift differential, out of rank, holiday pay, bonuses, and budgeted turnover allowance, Justine Oliva, Ph.D., Manager of Research at RIPEC wrote in an email. She pointed out that the report is for Group A employees who are firefighters and other employees serving the primary function of the department.  It does not include administrative staff.

She said overtime and medical expenditures per municipality are available on the Division of Municipal Finance's municipal transparency portal, from which RIPEC obtained its data.

From Cushman’s perspective of greater concern is deletion from the former contract of the 1 percent OPEP contributions required of new hires, termed a third tier of firefighters. Though signed by both parties, the payments weren’t deducted when questions over their transportability (whether the firefighter got to take contributions to the trust should they leave before retirement) were raised. Cushman asked how that provision of the contract could be ignored.

“How could you decide not to abide by the provisions of contract? Was there a side agreement not to abide by the contract… no one is looking at this,” he said.

He also questioned who would manage the trust funds as that differs from the current contract.

“They could have fixed the language,” he said.

He said a 2 percent OPEB contribution is “no where near enough” and is “simply a feel good measure.”

Looking at the bigger picture, Cushman believes with all the city will be issuing in bonds for schools ($56 million for upgrades has already been issued and another $350 million for new Toll Gate and Pilgrim High Schools), “we’re going to be considered a credit risk. We need to think how we are going to pay these expenses.”

Citing the lack of long range planning, Cushman said the City Council “is one of the worst… they don’t do their homework.”

Michael Carreiro, president of Warwick Firefighters Local 2748 IAFF, did not respond to a request for comment.

firefighters, contract