My extended thoughts about the fire fighter’s contract

The Elorza administration identified the cost of fire protection in Providence as a candidate for major savings.  There is ample evidence to support their choice.  According to a 2013 Report by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (p.44, Table 45), Rhode Island’s fire protection cost per capita was the second highest in the country in 2000 and 2011.  The administration’s goal was validated in a Consultant’s Report it commissioned last year, the data indicated that Providence’s fire protection staffing is significantly higher than peer cities in New England, and one of the most expensive of that group.

Providence’s staffing level is determined by its minimum staffing per shift and the number of shifts, or platoons.  In the Spring of 2015, the minimum staffing level was 92 fire fighters a level maintained in four shifts.  Each shift worked an average of 42 hours each week, thus providing coverage for all 168 hours of each week.  From this configuration it followed that the base size of the Providence fire fighting force was 94 members of each platoon times 4 platoons, or 376.  Because it was typical for 10 or 20 platoon members to be unavailable due to injuries and/or time off, the base staffing level of the Fire Department rose to between 400 and 450, not including management and certain “back office” personnel, such as fire inspectors.  When the full complement of 94 fire fighters was not available for a given shift or platoon, management would fill the deficit by “calling back” fire fighters from other platoons, paying them overtime (or time and half) for this extra work.

The Providence four-platoon staffing structure is common in Rhode Island, but not the prevailing one nationally.  Instead, most fire departments nationally are organized into three platoons, with each platoon working an average of 56 hours each week.  Under a three-platoon system, Providence would need a base staffing level of 94 times 3, or 282 fire fighters rather than 368.  After adding additional fire fighters for sick time and desk jobs, the base level of the force would be in the 300 to 350 range, or 100 fewer than the four-platoon structure.  This could result in significant savings in personnel costs if extra base pay for the longer work week was limited.

North Kingstown realized significant savings through this change in recent years.  The Town increased the average fire fighter’s work week from 42 to 56 hours, while increasing base pay by 10% for the 33% additional hours of work.  The fire fighters challenged this action in court.  The matter went all the way to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld the arrangement, relying largely on the fact that North Kingstown implemented the change after the existing collective bargaining agreement expired, and the parties reached an impasse in negotiations.  In 2014, Woonsocket (which at the time was governed by a budget commission) achieved dramatic savings by beginning to implement a similar change, but agreeing to revert to four shifts if the fire fighters agreed to reduce minimum manning from 28 to 21.

In May, 2015, the administration announced it was going to change from platoons working an average of 42 hours of week to three shifts working an average of 56 hours a week.  It also announced it would increase base pay by 8% for the 33% additional hours.  The administration did not negotiate this with the union, and the union did not support the change.  Instead, the union filed a grievance with an arbitrator, saying the existing contract called for them to receive overtime pay (time and a half) for the 33% additional hours.  Citing the North Kingstown case, the administration disagreed, saying that they were exercising a management right.  I asked several attorneys I know about this issue, and they believed that the North Kingstown case did not apply, because that town waited until the contract had expired before implementing changes in pay, while in Providence the administration was attempting to change the pay structure while a contract was currently in place.  The Superor Court agreed with union in a September, 2015 ruling sending the parties into grievance arbitration (which is to address violations of an existing, valid contract), and the case went up on appeal to the Supreme Court.

The administration did not consult with the City Council before taking this action.  At one point, the administration’s attorneys argued to the Superior Court that the City was not bound by the existing contract because it had been extended for a fourth year, while State law limited collective bargaining agreements to a maximum of three years in duration.  The prior City Council (on which I had served) approved the fourth year to achieve pension reform of $170 million, which until recently had been my most difficult vote.  In response, the union argued to the Superior Court that if the existing contract was invalid, then so was pension reform.  After realizing the implications of this argument, the administration’s lawyers backed down and retracted their position.

This episode offered some lessons to the administration.  First, their understanding of the fire contract was inaccurate, and their decision not to consult with the City Council had cost them the opportunity to avoid this mistake.  Second, it showed their lawyers were aware of the difference of the legal significance of the existing Providence contract, which could prevent them from achieving the savings that North Kingstown was able to accomplish because the contract there had expired.  At this time, the fire fighters were uncomfortable with the new working arrangements, which disrupted family life and provided a basis for a settlement.  Despite this, the administration “doubled down” and stated their belief they ultimately would win in the Supreme Court.  As a result, more than 100 fire fighters resigned or retired during this period.  Although the administration had authority to recruit a new fire academy class, it refused to do so, placing greater strains on the fire fighters who remained.

Preliminary signs of an easy Supreme Court victory were dampened when that Court refused to stay the Superior Court’s order sending the parties into grievance arbitration.  As fire fighter reports of injuries increased, the savings predicted under the new arrangement failed to materialize.  On the other hand the City’s liability for a loss in court increased.  According to a projection by the Internal Auditor, the exposure after the first year of the shift change exceeded $9 million, exceeding the $5 million in annual savings projected from the change.

In the fall of 2015, the City Council commissioned the MMA Consulting Group to study Fire Department staffing.  In May, 2016, they produced a Draft Report indicating that fire safety standards could be maintained while reducing minimum manning from 94 to 82.  The consultant had prepared previous reports that the union had accepted; therefore, this provided a chance for substantial savings.

In the summer of 2016, the parties entered mediation with Frank Williams, a retired justice of the Supreme Court.  I have settled cases with Justice Williams, and he is known for his success in difficult cases.  By September, the parties announced a tentative agreement settling the cases.  The tentative agreement proposed reducing minimum manning from 94 to 88, but restored the four-platoon structure.  It included other reforms in the structure of a 5-year contract, two more than the legal maximum.  (Given the administration’s prior arguments against a 4-year contract’s validity, this outcome is, to say the least ironic.)  The tentative agreement also permits arbitration of the “back pay” issue to go forward, which could cost the City another $10-$15 million in the event of an adverse ruling.

During the City Council’s review of the tentative agreement, I asked whether they were familiar with the MMA Report’s recommendation to reduce minimum manning to 82, which could have doubled the possible savings.  I learned that the City Council leadership denied the administration access to the draft MMA Report, falsely claiming that a final report was being prepared.  In fact, the City Council leadership paid MMA’s final bill in June without receiving a final report.  I asked the City Council leadership to explain their actions, but they refused to do so.  In this way, the City Council leadership wasted not only the cost of the report (around $38,000) but millions of dollars of possible additional savings.  For example, the MMA Report indicates the City could take a ladder truck out of service, which would reduce minimum manning by 3 and save $1.5 million per year, or $7.5 million over the contract’s 5-year term.  The City Council leadership never explained their decision, which along with their decision to cancel an infrastructure bond this Fall, adds to a record of (non)accomplishment that likely will be remembered as one of the most damaging in the City Council’s history.

While the City Council reviewed the tentative agreement, the administration announced that if it was approved, it would be implemented by taking out of service Engine 4 at Rochambeau Avenue and Engine 5 at Humboldt Avenue.  The Commissioner of Public Safety explained the rationale for this change at a community meeting on December 21 at Nathan Bishop Middle School.  He explained that those two engines were the least active, and that the safety standard of a maximum 4-minute average response time would be maintained.  The decision about which engines to deploy or decommission is made by management and is not governed by the contract, so I will advocate for a change if it appears that this arrangement is not working, or that a different engine could be taken out of service more efficiently.

Based on all of this information, I decided to vote for the contract.  The possible savings are only half of what we should have received according to the MMA Report, but the City’s bargaining leverage was largely reduced by the risk it would lose in the Supreme Court for violating an existing contract.  It provides some savings and labor peace, allowing an opportunity to rebuild a fire department that has been depleted and damaged by strife triggered by the administration’s unilateral (and quite possibly illegal) actions.  The proposed savings could be decimated or eliminated by the “back pay” arbitration award, but our Congressional delegation secured a federal grant that will help address that shortfall.  All in all, it seems time to move on to other issues, rather than continue the turmoil that has consumed the Fire Department for the past 18 months.

With that said, I am hopeful the administration can make full use of the “learning opportunity” this experience provides.  By failing to consult with the City Council, the administration put the City’s finances at risk and damaged relations with a coordinate branch of government.  By failing to work with the fire fighters, the administration bet all its chips on a legal theory which ultimately was risky at best.  From these experiences, I hope the administration will learn the value of collaboration in solving the City’s problems, as teamwork increases the knowledge base upon which good policies can be developed, as well as the base of supporters and allies who can ensure that a good policy idea will be accepted and embraced by those whom it affects.