WARWICK, RI — The Warwick City Council’s third night of budget hearings touched on details of the Warwick Fire Department, Public Works and Recreation Department budgets and citizens’ concerns, including firefighter shift change accounting identified as a topic of investigation by the recently hired Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC).
The Council ended the hearings with all departments reviewed at 10:30 p.m., leaving the next round of hearings, a line item review and vote on the budget, for 9 a.m. at Warwick City Hall, on Saturday. Among the additions to the budget is an additional $1,218,671 for the school department. The new funding brings the total budget up from $308,271,737 to 309,490,408.
During the review of the Warwick Fire Department’s budget, Rob Cote raised a question about overtime and shift changes, presenting Warwick Fire Department records of shift changes, vacation days and overtime. He said the records, obtained by himself and Ken Block from the department via the state Access to Public Records Act, range through two years, and show that shift changes, which are covered by other firefighters on the stipulation that the original firefighter pay back the shift for the other person, are often not balanced in that fashion, forcing the city to pay overtime to firefighters who then cover the next open shift.
Cote said the Fire Department would not give them records from July 1, 2017 to the present. But during the meeting, he pointed to July through September of 2016, a period when the amount of leave was high at the same time as high overtime, coinciding with most of the the changes of shift and extended vacations.
“So what it appears is, the Chief has said, ‘Well, we’re down some men, we don’t have enough floaters. But there’s plenty of men to do changes of shift. So those vacation days that should’ve been covered by a floater at straight time, they’re covered by another man at time and a half, and during that period there was 1,105 vacation days, all covered at overtime, and during that time there was hundreds of changes of shift. So, we don’t have enough manpower for floaters to cover the overtime, there’s plenty of men to swap out other guys so they can play baseball, go to Story Land or Santa’s Village, or whatever else. It’s problematic,” Cote said.
He also criticized the firefighter’s contract with the city, which he said allows the Fire Chief wide discretion to give firefighters days off.
“What businessman would enter into a contract with language that is so loosely and poorly written?” he asked.
He also took issue with prior interpretations of the contract’s rules regarding how many firefighters can be on vacation at the same time, reported as a maximum of six. Cote noted the contract actually says that’s a minimum.
Acting Chief Marcel Fontenault said the department actually observes it as a maximum, although the contract says otherwise.
“It’s not a problem, because the union isn’t disputing it,” Fontenault said.
“It is a problem,” Cote said.
When Councilman Ed Ladouceur asked Fontenault about his thoughts on Cote’s assertions, the Chief said he disagreed with it, but suggested having a third party review the documents before he argued specific points.
“I know that the Mayor had put out a press release at the beginning of the week that he was asking for RIPEC to come in to do an accounting. Maybe they’re the impartial third party that should look at this,” said Council President Stephen Merolla.
Documents and an agenda for Saturday’s hearing is embedded below:
This is a test