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Divided Council Passes Fire Contract with Errors Intact

Warwick City Hall
Warwick City Hall
Warwick City Hall.

WARWICK, RI — The Warwick City Council ratified the Warwick Firefighters contract 5-4 Jan. 6, with language that prevents the city from disputing certain injury claims and incorrect wording that would pay 125 percent of firefighters’ weekly salary for holidays.

The vote quickly followed a similarly divided vote overriding City Council President Steven Merolla’s ruling that the document also failed to fulfill a city ordinance calling for the fiscal note to identify the cost of an OPEB trust partially funded by 2 percent of new firefighters’ pay.

Both votes were opposed by Merolla and Councilmen Jeremy Rix, Ed Ladouceur and Richard Corley.

The quick decisions followed a passionate debate toward the end of four hours of discussion on the merits and failings of the contract.

Calls for ordinance-required dollar amounts rejected

Ladouceur, who had joined Merolla in pushing for dollar amounts on the costs of the OPEB trust instead of the 28- to 30-percent savings estimated in the fiscal note, pointed out that city ordinance required the information he and Merolla were asking for.

Over the course of the previous four hours, Bill DePasquale, Mayor Joseph Solomon’s chief of staff, Brian Silva, Warwick’s Finance Director, and financial consultant Michael D’Amico all told the council that they could not provide that information because the firefighters who will be affected by it have not been hired yet, therefore there are no salaries or life expectancies to use in an estimate.

Section 30-6, Ladoceur said, states that wherever possible, fiscal notes should cite the effect in dollar amounts for the current fiscal year. In the event the effect occurs beyond current fiscal years, comment on the effect shall be required, according to the ordinance.

The requirement was confirmed by the body’s legal counsel, Bill Conley.

“There was comment,” Councilman Anthony Sinapi said, to the extent possible.

“That’s the savings. This says costs,” Merolla said

“I request a ruling by the chair on a point of order,” Sinapi said.

“So you don’t want to engage in a [debate] on the cost?” Merolla asked.

“I’m not a mathematician. You should ask the administration,” Sinapi said.

“Why doesn’t the administration get up and tell us?” Merolla asked.

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“It’s not my job. Ask them,” Sinapi said.

“My ruling is it doesn’t comply” with the ordinance, Merolla said.

Sinapi appealed Merolla’s ruling and called for a vote to be taken, which was seconded by Councilors Stephen McAllister, Donna Travis, James McElroy and Timothy Howe.

“Just one additional quip,” added Sinapi. “As far as the savings versus costs debate, if you’re saying you’re going to have a savings of 27 to 30 percent, on a cost, you are actually commenting on the cost by definition, although I don’t think there’s any reason to quibble over this, because, fundamentally, based on how it looks, I’d rather see the vote.”

“At the end of the day, councilman, (residents) pay their taxes based on costs, not percentages,” Merolla said.

“Right, and they also know, because we’ve debated it ad nauseam, they get a savings under this contract and the alternative is to gamble with their money, which is a violation of our fiduciary duty,” Sinapi said.

Sinapi, McAllister, Travis, McElroy and Howe voted to overturn Merolla’s ruling.

A motion to move the question on whether to ratify the contract was approved with the same split of votes, and then the vote to ratify the contract passed by the same 5-4 margin.

Errors remain in approved pact

The ratified contract included errors acknowledged by DePasquale earlier in the meeting.

On Page 30, for instance, the contract states that holiday pay shall be ¼ the employees weekly salary, with “1¼,” or five times that amount, in parenthesis after:

Holiday pay shall be one­-fourth (1¼) the employee’s weekly salary and shall be paid to each employee over and above his or her weekly salary, whether he or she works the holiday or not. 

This line should have struck the holiday pay amount in parenthesis, DePasquale said.

Also, DePasquale pointed out three times on Page 66 when “2018” was written instead of “2019,” and noted that the administration plans to add a paragraph noting the Warwick City Council’s approval on page 73.

DePasquale said the edits do not materially change the effect of the contract. He termed them “scrivener’s errors,” and said they would be corrected before the document is made official.

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“I’d be hesitant to say that that’s a non-substantive provision,” Conley said, adding that the fiscal note for the contract is based on the one-quarter holiday pay amount.

However, DePasquale, councilors, and Conley all pointed out that the council does not have the ability to amend the contract, only to either pass or reject it, as-is.

Conley strongly urged the council not to ratify the document before the edits were made.

“The best thing to do is to fix it. Just fix it so there’s no ambiguity,” Conley said.

The majority votes to approve the pact allowed the errors to remain.

Councilors knock disability language, rush to approve contract

Corley pointed out other misgivings about the contract, including a provision on Page 69, section 2, establishing a “conclusive presumption” that firefighters’ duties lead directly to any disabling heart conditions or respiratory ailments.

“The RI Supreme Court just said exactly the opposite. There is no conclusive presumption,“ Corley said. He also wondered whether that means Warwick is giving firefighters rights that others in the state don’t have.

On Thursday, Rix said he didn’t see any reason the contract vote couldn’t have been taken after the corrections were made.

“Generally speaking, while it’s better to have an active contract sooner rather than later, I don’t see the urgency in passing it on Jan. 6 instead of fixing the issues and then voting on it. And there was no need for the urgency. These issues were known about at the time of the first hearing on Dec. 16, and, I think that they could have been fixed between that day and the Council meeting on Jan. 6,” Rix said.

Author: Rob Borkowski

Rob has worked as reporter and editor for several publications, including The Kent County Daily Times and Coventry Courier, before working for Gatehouse in MA then moving home with Patch Media. Now he's publisher and editor of WarwickPost.com. Contact him at editor@warwickpost.com with tips, press releases, advertising inquiries, and concerns.