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Solomon Tries to Rush, Spin Flawed Fire Contract

[CREDIT: Rob Borkowski] A crowd of firefighters filled the left half of council chambers Dec. 16 as the Warwick Finance Committee discussed and heard public comment on the newly negotiated firefighters contract.

[CREDIT: Rob Borkowski] A crowd of firefighters filled the left half of council chambers Dec. 16 as the Warwick Finance Committee discussed and heard public comment on the newly negotiated firefighters contract.
[CREDIT: Rob Borkowski] A crowd of firefighters filled the left half of council chambers Dec. 16 as the Warwick Finance Committee discussed and heard public comment on the newly negotiated firefighters contract.
In his first opportunity to negotiate a new fire contract this past spring, Mayor Joseph Solomon’s plan for a two-year pact was soundly rejected by IAFF Local 2748

At the time, Solomon warned that the union’s decision would affect how much the city could fund the fire department in future years.

Those “future years” have arrived — Solomon submitted a new three-year proposal to the city council this week that varies from the earlier settlement in more ways than just its length.

This time, the fire union had a chance to approve it, and did — by a 90-percent margin, according to union officials.

City councilors had a first, abbreviated public review of the deal as the finance committee approved it during a marathon meeting on Dec. 16. 

A review of the new deal shows that Solomon is actually giving up ground and leaving major financial issues unresolved while making big, positive-sounding claims about the contract.

[A PDF version of the proposed contract is embedded below.]

Unfortunately, Solomon hasn’t answered publicly for these issues yet, because he decided not to present the contract to the council himself, instead leaving that task to staffers.

Further complicating the issue is a hastily arranged council meeting set for Friday night, Dec. 20, which led some councilors to question Solomon’s motives

Solomon’s apparent support for the special session (including delivery of the meeting notice by constable) runs counter to the council’s originally stated plan for a Jan. 6 meeting to discuss it, and shows a level of urgency that, arguably, isn’t necessary.

warwick-post-commentaryMisleading claims cast shadow on rosy terms

Among the new terms that Solomon touted are no salary increase for 2019-20 and two-percent raises in the following two years; the creation of 24-hour shifts intended to reduce overtime; and the creation of an OPEB trust fund paid through a contribution of 2 percent of annual salary from firefighters hired after this July.

That OPEB (other post-employment benefits) fund, remember, is the same one that Solomon and members of the city council rejected over the past few years — Solomon led the charge to cut $200,000 proposed to study such a fund in 2015, as one example.

So when Solomon says that “this contract creates a template to forge a new way forward,” he’s seemingly asking people to ignore how he defeated past attempts by then-Mayor Scott Avedisian to start up an OPEB study and eventually create a fund.

Solomon also announced that as a condition of the new contract, the city will drop its appeal of an arbitrator’s ruling that the city violated its prior contract with the fire union by starting up a new pension program (called Tier II) without negotiating it.

At the time he announced the arbitrator’s decision in a press conference at City Hall, Solomon highlighted the $2.6 million that the city would have to pay to settle the matter.

With the new contract, the city will still create a new tier for pensions, but only for firefighters hired after July 1, 2019.

As a result, that $2.6 million in pension contributions, representing about 60 firefighters hired before that date, will now be paid by the city.

Potential pitfalls remain for city

While the new contract covers 2019 through 2022, the 2018 contract remains in arbitration — one of several possible factors that may further chip away at Solomon’s attempt to garner praise for the new pact.

Depending on how the arbitrator eventually rules, the 2018 contract could cost between $375,000 and $750,000, representing the city’s offer of a 1.5-percent salary hike and the union’s request for a 3.5-percent increase, respectively.

Then there are the changes to sick, vacation, and personal time included in the new deal, which eliminates the two personal days provided in past contracts, reduces sick days from 20 to 16, and cuts paid holidays from 14 to 13. 

While Solomon said the reductions in paid time off would save a total of $450,000, the new contract apparently does nothing to address shift changes that have cost the city millions of dollars per year, leading Council President Steve Merolla to suggest that the Rhode Island Expenditure Council should investigate the practice during last year’s budget hearings.

(Solomon has yet to release information about RIPEC’s work in the city that Warwick Post requested earlier this year.)

Another case of spin vs. substance

Solomon, understandably, needed to show some progress on the fire contract since it was the only city agreement that hadn’t already been settled — and that’s aside from what can only be described as an embarrassing rebuke from the fire union this past spring.

And while securing a 4-percent salary hike over three years (in comparison to the 9 percent over three years that police and municipal workers got in their last contracts) is admirable, that’s not the entire story, contrary to what Solomon’s statements imply.

For example, when Solomon claims that the new contract is “revenue neutral,” he is essentially promising that firefighters’ pay and benefits will not cost the city any more during its three-year term, and yet there’s an unresolved contract year and the $2.6 million Tier II pension charge that will cut into any projected savings — two major factors that Solomon didn’t mention.

Selectively leaving important facts unsaid has become something of a Solomon trademark in his 18-plus months of occupying the mayor’s office.

One only needs to review how Solomon made several misleading claims about the FY18 audit for evidence of this; at the same time he was touting an increase of $100,000 in the city’s rainy day fund, he didn’t mention that the city’s overall reserves actually fell by almost $6 million.

Solomon has also tried to rush into decisions that have later fallen apartlike when he declared mediation on the FY19 school budget “put to rest” despite the fact that it hinged on an illegal pension withdrawal.

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In that case, the city council eventually paid $3.9 million more to the schools for FY19 and the pension withdrawal never happened.

Given his victory in last year’s election and continued (if shaky) relationship with a 9-0 Democratic City Council, Solomon arguably doesn’t need to make grandiose — and potentially false — claims about the new fire contract. 

The fact that he persists in doing so, though, is an indication that he’s still learning on the job after observing the mayor’s office from his seat the council for 20 years.

Conclusion: Solomon did a decent job on the new firefighters’ contract without making overblown and premature claims about its future impact — or forcing the council to hold a meeting on unnecessarily short notice.

Read the proposed IAFF contract below:

Joe Hutnak
Author: Joe Hutnak

Co-Founder and Editor-at-Large of Warwick Post. For Warwick Post-related inquiries or communications, email editorjoe.warwick@gmail.com