In front of a full chamber Monday night, the Warwick City Council voted 5-3 to ratify new three-year union contracts for police and municipal workers.
While the entire council was in agreement that both parties deserved raises that were promised in negotiation, arguments erupted over whether the city can afford to pay for them.
“Obviously we're pleased from the perspective that it does get rid of a distraction and allows us to focus exclusively on our job,” said Col. Stephen M. McCartney, chief of police, on Tuesday. “We're happy we have a contract here for the rank and file but at the same time we understand we may be going into some challenging fiscal times here. I got the message [from the council] loud and clear.”
Council members went back and forth over the merits of the contracts, with the discussion hinging on the stability of Warwick’s financial future.
“There’s a matter of our city workers, our police officers,” said Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix. “Yes, they absolutely deserve these raises and these benefits, but how can we pay for it in the long term? Because then in the long term a receiver comes in. The last thing we need is for that to happen. That’s the absolutely worst case scenario.”
Rix’s words were mirrored by other council members, who all agreed that giving out raises was the right thing to do. Councilwoman Donna M. Travis, Ward 9, said “they deserve it,” and Councilman Stephen P. McAllister said, “These people are here to protect and serve. They worked with us in the past, and I think they’ll work with us in the future.”
On the other hand, some council members stressed the financial implications of ratifying the contracts.
“This city is beyond the question of solvency if we continue on the path that we’re on,” said Ward 1 Councilman Richard Corley. “We’re going to have the next generation taking on debt that is pretty much going to crush the city.”
The contracts call for a 2.75 percent raise for police and municipal workers. In a fiscal note prepared by former Finance Director Bruce R. Keiser, the effect on the budget in fiscal year 2018-19, would be $456,006 for the police contract, and $462,895 for the municipal contract. By fiscal year 2020-21, the final year of both contracts, that would increase to a budget hit of $481,432 for the police and $488,704 for municipal workers.
All told, over the lifetime of the two contracts, raises will cost the city just over $2.8 million.
Both of the contracts were negotiated between the unions and the administration of former mayor Scott Avedisian, before he resigned in May to take up a new position as CEO of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. Due to the transition and the need to finalize a new budget, the ratification of these contracts by the city council was put on hold in June until Monday’s meeting. The police union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, has been working without a contract since June 30, when their old contract elapsed.
In testimony given to the Finance Committee before the council vote, FOP Lodge 7 president Sgt. Jedidiah Pineau said that Warwick was having trouble getting enough new recruits to fill the ranks, and that top candidates were going to other police departments in Rhode Island that show more stability. Pineau mentioned that the current recruitment drive by Warwick Police has fielded only 58 possible candidates, and that the department is short of the 175 officers it needs to protect the community.
Pineau also discussed the negotiating history of FOP Lodge 7 with the city. He told how the union had accepted staffing cuts to their ranks after the Great Recession in 2008, and the lack of pay raises from 2012 to 2015.
“We need to work on facts,” said McAllister, who voted in favor of passage and shared many of the same concerns the unions had. “The facts are we have information before us. The contracts were negotiated in good faith. This particular union has worked with us in the past. There are a number of impacts, not just financial, that we need to look at. We’re losing top recruits to other cities. We want to show them we have stability.”
When the resolutions to ratify the union agreements finally came to the council floor, a number of different legislative maneuvers took place.
The police contract was brought up first.
Rix, after hearing most of the other council members speak, moved to delay a vote until the next council meeting in mid-August. He claimed that more time was needed to study the issue, as well as more financial information, before a decision should be made.
“I think that there is some additional information we could get by waiting concerning the cities long-term financial outlook,” said Rix in a follow-up interview on Tuesday. Rix said a five-year financial plan is being conducted by the Providence accounting firm Yarlas, Kaplan, Santilli, Moran Ltd. (YKSM), as required by state law, and should’ve been available to the council by the next meeting if they had voted to delay.
But that delaying measure was beaten, as the council was not able to get a majority in favor. The vote split 4-4. McAllister, Ward 3 Councilman Tim Howe, Travis and Ward 8 Councilman Joseph Gallucci voted against the measure to delay.
At that point Corley made a motion to ratify the contract for only one year, instead of the hashed out three-year plan that the city and union had already agreed to.
“We have to do something to remedy, and entering into a three-year contract when we only have the money to pay for one year is bad,” said Corley on Tuesday, talking about why he moved to reduce the contract length.
The motion was met by loud boo’s from union members who packed the chamber.
However, the attempt to restrict the contract length was quickly shot down by the city council solicitor, John Harrington. He had researched the topic beforehand and determined that prior rulings in Providence showed that the city council could only ratify, yes or no, the agreement before them, and didn’t have the legal right to amend the contract length.
With that motion dead, the council moved to vote on the police contract.
Corley, Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur and Council President Steve Merolla voted against ratifying the contract, while all other council members voted in favor. The measure passed 5-3. Despite his motion just minutes earlier to delay the decision, Rix voted to ratify the contract.
“I wouldn't necessarily say it was a change,” Rix said on Wednesday when asked what made him change his mind following his motion to delay. “I'd say I had a preference waiting for a five-year report. But given the options it was preferable to vote for the contract at that time…While I would have preferred us to have all that additional information, based on the information that we do have and all of our knowledge from previous years as to the city's financial outlook, we did have sufficient info to make a vote."
Seconds after the police contract passed, the council moved to vote on the municipal employees contract. That measure passed the same way, with Corley, Ladouceur and Merolla against and all others for. Both votes were met by loud cheers from an audience full of union members.
“I think that there were legitimate concerns brought up this evening for both sides, and the fiscal information cannot be ignored,” said Mayor Joseph Solomon moments after the vote. He had sat front row during the deliberations. “I stand behind the council.”
Other than the pay raises, there were few changes to either the police or municipal contract. The police contract raises the cost for details and holiday pay, while the municipal contract increases vacation time for employees with between 6-30 years of experience.
If both contracts had been turn downed by the city council, then the police would have gone into arbitration, while the municipal employees would have reentered negotiation.
In the aftermath of the vote questions still arise about the financial stability of Warwick. In a discussion on Tuesday, Corley was adamant that the city would need to start making better decisions if it were to stay in a strong financial position.
“We had received information from the accountants that next year we will have a shortfall of $5 million or more in the budget,” said Corley. “We have to face reality at one point or another. Next spring we’re going to have to find more money through taxes, and tax payers want no tax increase, let alone a max increase.”
But not all council members share Corley’s view.
“I have concerns like everybody else, but we can’t just be stagnant and wait,” said McCallister on Tuesday. “There will always be another report.”
The latest City of Warwick balance sheets show that the cumulative surplus is increasing. At the end of 2016, under the Avedisian administration, the city had a surplus of $22 million, and by the end of 2017 the surplus had increased to $29 million.
Council President Merolla was the one who put up the biggest fight to keep the contracts from being ratified.
“From this councilman’s perspective I don’t what to be the one who lies to people,” said Merolla Monday night. “I want to be on the record saying it’s not a secure future.”