Let's clear the smoke
Like a boil that grows increasingly painful, allegations of “gaming” unused sick days continues to plague the Warwick Fire Department.
The allegations that go as far as suggesting fraud and the illegal procurement of hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars stem from Rob Cote’s exhaustive examination of department records. He has made his probe into the Fire Department operations a personal crusade, gaining the endorsement of former gubernatorial candidate Ken Block, the founder of Watchdog RI, and almost universally the ire of department higher-ups and, in some cases, elected officials who have the support of the firefighters’ union.
Cote has gone to lengths to expose other forms of what he considers a waste of taxpayers’ dollars in what many think of as “gotcha” tactics, such as following Department of Public Works drivers and catching them on video as they make seemingly pointless drives through the city or remain parked for hours while chatting on their cell phones. He has been equally merciless in monitoring the movements of firefighters while taking apparatus to area supermarkets in a futile effort to stop the practice.
He is not bashful about sharing his findings, or for that matter his opinion. Mr. Cote regularly appears before the City Council to outline the alleged flaws he’s exposed. His emails are forwarded to a list of news outlets that rivals most of the candidates running for governor. The fact that the statewide media, other than WPRI TV and WPRO Radio, pay little heed to Mr. Cote appears to satisfy his critics that there’s smoke but no fire.
Indeed, there is a lot of bravado to Mr. Cote, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned since he started digging into the payment for unused firefighter sick pay more a year ago: he’s thorough and tenacious.
It’s the practice of those looking to deflect scrutiny to harp upon one or two “facts” within an argument, prove them wrong and hence discredit the totality of the premise. We have not seen that here. We suspect that is the case because Mr. Cote is using records he obtained under the Access to Public Records Act, or perhaps because Mr. Cote’s goes far deeper than that of city officials.
Without naming names, as no wrongdoing has been confirmed as of this time, Mr. Cote alleges firefighters are being paid for unused sick days that, in fact, they did use. He has compared the unused sick day pay – firefighters receive 20 paid sick days a year, for which they can get paid for 15 days – with sick days used for every member of the department since 2015. He says the sick day records for upper echelon members are missing, comprising more than 35 percent of the force. Nonetheless, he finds as many as 150 members were unfairly compensated for unused sick days. Over the three years he contends the city has paid for about 600 improperly recorded unused sick days amounting to more than $225,000, not counting overtime costs to cover for sick absences. It should be noted that firefighters, by contract, cannot start getting paid for unused sick days until they have accumulated 140 days, or seven years of being sick-free. Remarkably, it seems, firefighters are extraordinarily healthy until they reach that threshold.
Also of great concern to Cote is how sick day data is compiled on handwritten ledgers that sometimes contain vast fluctuations in accounting figures between firefighters from month to month. He believes recording on handwritten documents to be incredibly inefficient, antiquated and opens the possibility for honest mistakes in the system, if not something more nefarious.
Mr. Cote has shared his findings with department administrators, the mayor, the council and, as we’ve said, the news media. So far, the response of officials has been to refrain from action or comment until completion of an audit of the records.
As the auditors are looking at the same records Mr. Cote has, we doubt their study will change much. What is troubling is Mr. Cote’s conclusion that officials knew and, in fact, condoned a practice of unfairly rewarding firefighters.
It’s time to clear the smoke and put out the fire if, indeed, there is one. The mayor should call for an investigation and remove this blot on the department.