The relationship between the City of Warwick and the Warwick Fire Department is significantly strained, based on statements from the fire department union’s president and the fact that a tentative agreement (TA) for the 2019-21 collective bargaining agreement between the two was “overwhelming” voted down by the union rank and file last week.
The development came as bad news to Mayor Joseph Solomon, who has outlined a looming fiscal storm over Warwick since his State of the City address in February posited a possible $18 million deficit for the fiscal year that begins on July 1 and a $7.4 million hole that must be addressed to close out the current year that concludes at the end of June.
“I am extremely disappointed with the decision of the majority of the rank-and-file not to approve the two-year, tentative agreement that was reached after many discussions between my administration and the Union’s executive board,” he said in a press release issued after the decision. “Both parties negotiated in good faith in an effort to realize critically important cost savings for the taxpayers in these very challenging fiscal times, to correct mistakes of the past, and to forge a new, positive path forward for the department and the city.”
Solomon had touted to media outlets prior to the TA going before the union that the arrangement asked the firefighters to accept no raises for either 2020 or 2021, which he argued “would have saved well in excess of $2 million for the taxpayers.”
Additionally, Solomon said last week that the agreement included various changes to contract language that had caused issues in the past, such as a provision that changed the value of unused sick days that firefighters could cash in and the frequency at which they could cash them in – a provision that had changed without council approval through an apparent “side deal.” It would also have clarified pension “language that was left ambiguous in a previous contract, which recently resulted in an arbitrator award in favor of the fire department.
“I would also note that the recent arbitration decision regarding the Tier II pensions cost the taxpayers in excess of $2.6 million in savings,” Solomon said in the release. “This vote only exacerbates these costs to the taxpayers going forward. The majority’s vote means that other departments will have to sacrifice further to cover these expenses. It will also greatly restrict our ability to fund the fire department’s requests for new equipment and additional personnel going forward.”
Reached for comment on Friday, fire union president Michael Carreiro said that emotions within the rank and file regarding a perception they are being blamed for the city’s financial woes could have contributed to the TA being voted down by a considerable margin. He declined to reveal the exact number of votes in favor and against, but maintained it was a “significant majority” that voted nay.
“I know there is probably frustration from the members who think they're paying for the previous administration's mistakes,” he said. “I think that may have added to it.”
When asked if the mayor’s decision to air the details of the TA to the media prior to the vote occurring later in the week had a negative impact on the rank and file, Carreiro didn’t deny the possibility.
“I think that probably might have added to the already running high emotions and frustrations with everything that's going on,” he said. “It's a possibility, it could have had an impact.”
In response to the statements made by Solomon regarding the pension arbitration issue costing the city additional money, Carreiro said that the fire department is not to blame for following the language of the contract, but that it was the city’s problem for not clarifying the language and incorporating it into the agreement – which ultimately led to the arbitrator’s decision falling in their favor.
“I don't know how we're being portrayed as the villains when we're just going by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement,” he said.
In regards to Solomon’s statements regarding city department’s making concessions to weather the financial storm brewing, Carreiro pointed to the fire department committing to taking no raises throughout the 2012-15 collective bargaining agreement. He said that two more years of no raises, amounting to five out of seven years with no raises, was something the rank and file was not prepared to commit to.
The collective bargaining agreement for the 2018-19 year is awaiting an arbitration award, which Carreiro said is about “three quarters” of the way to completion. He estimated the decision was still a “few months” out. That leaves the 2019-21 deal, which at this point is dead in the water and also bound for arbitration unless the city and fire department resume talks.
“I think we have to continue building the relationship to move forward and being fiscally responsible and try to work together in getting a collective bargaining agreement to move forward,” said Carreiro.
Solomon indicated in his release that further financial investigation into the Warwick Fire Department would be initiated. The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment after the press release was sent out.
“Given this setback and the financial impact this will bring on the city, I will be commissioning a fire department study to determine if there are operational and other costs savings that can be realized in order to continue to provide the fire services that the citizens of Warwick expect and deserve,” Solomon stated.