Town Manager Says Fire Budget ’Unsustainable’; Firefighters Say, ‘Just Talk to Us’

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Station One on Main Street.

Town Manager Gayle Corrigan issued a letter late Friday afternoon putting the blame for East Greenwich alleged financial problems squarely on the shoulders of the Fire Department, in particular the firefighters.

“The bottom line is that our town cannot afford this contract, and we cannot allow the personnel costs of 36 town employees out of an approximate total of 150 to blow a hole in the budget,” said Corrigan, referring to the contract between the fire fighters union and the Town Council last year. Three members of the current Town Council signed that agreement – President Sue Cienki, Vice President Sean Todd, and Councilman Mark Schwager, but Corrigan has said that the fiscal impact of the contract was not fully known and at least one member, Todd, has agreed.

“In the coming weeks, I will present to the Town Council a detailed plan to address these cost increases that will be fair to our residents and to our firefighters.”

The contract cannot be broken without cause, say a significant change in a municipality’s financial outlook. By highlighting what she characterizes as an “unsustainable” fire contract, Corrigan may well be trying to pave the way for such an argument.

EG firefighter union president Bill Perry says his union has reached out to town officials seven times since July to discuss the town’s concerns and the town has declined to meet or not responded. This parallels a ramp up by town officials of dire warnings about unsustainable firefighter costs.

The focus on the fire department began when consulting firm Providence Analytics presented its assessment of the Town of East Greenwich’s fiscal situation June 5. Then-consultant (now town manager) Gayle Corrigan dedicated several minutes outlining what she said were some potential problems with the EG Fire Department, including what she called “unsustainable collective bargaining agreements” and “short-sighted employment practices.”

Two weeks later, then-Town Manager Tom Coyle was hustled out of his job (by mutual agreement, Coyle “separated” amicably with the town, but in testimony last Tuesday, 10/17, Council Vice President Sean Todd admitted Coyle had wanted to stay in his position), and Corrigan was given the town manager job. Now able to act on her conclusions about the EGFD, Corrigan hired a consultant from Ohio to perform what he called a “fiscal analysis” of the two most recent firefighter collective bargaining agreements. He presented his findings at the Aug. 28 Town Council meeting, saying there were dire financial consequences for the town. That report, however, was the analyst’s failure to speak with Fire Chief Russell McGillivray in preparing his report and it’s not clear that Corrigan has since talked with the chief about it.

Next, Corrigan and Town Council leadership announced the need to appoint an acting fire chief during a short-term medical leave by Chief Russell McGillivray at a very unusual Saturday morning Town Council meeting. The agenda presented a mystery, however, since the usual protocol was that the next in command would assume chief duties during the chief’s absence, in this case McGillivray had tapped Captain Tom Mears. But the agenda did not name the person to be appointed and Town Council President Sue Cienki said beforehand that she did not know who Corrigan would be recommending. The meeting, which was filled to overflowing with firefighters and town residents, ended five minutes after it began, with Mears’s appointment to the role, just as Chief Russell McGillivray had instructed. Town Councilman Mark Schwager questioned the need for a Saturday meeting. Cienki defended the move, saying it was important to follow the charter.

That night at 10:18 p.m., Corrigan sent an email to EG firefighter union president Bill Perry telling him she was firing probationary firefighter James Perry (who happens to be Bill Perry’s brother). Corrigan took the action on recommendation of herself, in the role of fire chief for administration, since by town charter, the town manager can only dismiss a firefighter upon recommendation of the fire chief. It was explained later that Mears had been appointed fire chief “of operations” only, which according to Corrigan, left administrative duties to her.

The firefighters union sued the town over Perry’s dismissal, as well as other actions relating to Corrigan’s hire and alleged Town Council Open Meetings Act violations. In court testimony in September, Corrigan admitted she did not approve of recent hires (including James Perry) made under former-Town Manager Coyle.

Since June, Corrigan has repeatedly targeted the EGFD for budget excesses, including overtime expenses. She decided not to fill the empty deputy fire chief position so the money for that hire could be used to offset overtime expenses in excess of what had been budgeted. However, she did fill a fire clerk position that had been vacant for three years with the former fire clerk who had signed a separation agreement with the town in which, among other things, she agreed to drop her multiple lawsuits against the town.

Meanwhile, the budget for fiscal year 2018 that was passed June 8 (and made public in July), showed an increase the EGFD budget line by $700,000, because the “rescue billing” revenue line had been moved to the EGFD expense budget. Previous budgets – including the budget presented by then-Town Manager Coyle in May – listed rescue billing revenues as revenue. It’s unclear why a revenue line in this year’s budget was added as an expense line. (Repeated requests for interviews with Corrigan, Cienki and Finance Director Linda Dykeman have all been ignored or denied.)

It’s unknown whether or not town officials have considered hiring a firm to analyze firefighter staffing. Such an analysis would, among other things, look at the size of the town, the number of residents, the town’s geography, the types of buildings (including construction materials used) and their sizes, and the types of businesses (industrial, medical, etc.). The results of such an analysis, according to a municipal expert who asked to remain anonymous, could be used to better determine everything from the number of fire stations a town needs and where they should be located to the number and type of vehicles a fire department should have, to how many firefighters are needed per vehicle per shift. 

The Town Council has been talking to lawyer Tim Cavazza, seen going into an executive session with the panel in September. He is the same lawyer who brought the 56-hour, three-platoon system to North Kingstown (which has been enacted but remains tied up in litigation) and Providence, where it was enacted but was defeated in court. That city is now negotiating with the firefighter union there over a settlement.

EG firefighter union president Bill Perry said his union has reached out to town officials seven times since July to discuss the town’s concerns. Town Solicitor David D’Agostino was initially receptive to the idea, said Perry, telling Perry he would be in contact to arrange a meeting. When weeks passed and no word from D’Agostino, Perry contacted him again. This time, D’Agostino said the town would not be sitting down with the union, according to Perry. The firefighters contract does not expire until 2019, but upon mutual agreement, the two sides can meet and potentially make changes within the contract’s time period.

“If you can sit down and show me what the problem is, we’ll help you fix it,” Perry said Wednesday. “I can’t help them if they refuse to sit with us.”

“I am always always of the mind it’s good to sit down and engage in conversation, but you need to know what is to be discussed,” D’Agostino said Friday. But no sit-downs have happened.

The firefighter union representatives are meeting Monday with Cavazza to discuss grievances but not the contract.

One of the issues raised by Corrigan in the Providence Analytics presentation June 5 was the change in the latest firefighter contract that will add one firefighter per shift (it is phased in over the three-year contract). Previously, there had been eight firefighters per shift with one “floater” – someone at Station One who would fill in to cover a vacancy. The floater would be paid for a regular shift, not overtime. Corrigan called the decision to increase the minimum manning to nine “unusual” – now if one of the nine firefighters was out, someone would need to be called in and paid overtime.

Since 2012, the EGFD has had one engine and one rescue at Station One on Main Street and one engine and one rescue at Station Two on Frenchtown Road. Before that, only the Station One engine truck was manned, and it was manned by three firefighters. When the department wanted to man an engine at Station Two, the union agreed to allow shift the third engine man at Station One to help staff the new engine at Station Two.

While two firefighters may be enough for a typical call, Perry said, it is not enough for the really critical calls, such as drownings, or the incident at the high school three years ago, when a volleyball player went into cardiac arrest during practice, or the serious car accident on Route 4 in 2012 involving an eight-month pregnant woman.

In such instances, an engine and the rescue truck would respond. Under the eight-person staffing then, that meant four firefighters would be on the call. In really serious situations, Perry said, all four firefighters could be needed with the patient, leaving no one to drive the rescue truck. In recent incidents, Perry said, a police officer was needed to drive the rescue truck, not a vehicle they are trained to drive.

“That extra person makes all the difference in the world,” said Perry.

East Greenwich could still add a floater, he said, if overtime is a concern. He noted that different municipalities handle the floater issue differently. In Warwick, he said, they have seven to eight floaters per shift in an effort to keep overtime low. Cranston, on the other hand, is the opposite, said Perry. They will leave several positions vacant and fill them with existing staff working overtime, because they want to save on salaries, pensions and healthcare.

Corrigan has also argued that hiring firefighters from other departments (so-called lateral hires) costs the town more in the long run. Perry disputes this. The pension money a firefighter has paid into the system follows the firefighter, so a firefighter with 15 years, say, in Coventry who takes a job in East Greenwich will have the pension money from Coventry go to East Greenwich. Of course, that firefighter’s additional years of service in East Greenwich will cost East Greenwich.

The most recent contract removed a step for new hires so that they would make top pay in two years instead of four, a management “give” in the parlance. Perry said the union gave to the town too.

For instance, he said, firefighters pledged to continue to cover dispatch shifts so the department doesn’t have to hire civilian staff and pay benefits and pension. Firefighters sign up to fill the dispatch shifts for a flat fee (now $22 for a day shift; $20 for a night shift), with no overtime (and dispatch hours do not contribute to their pension). Before 2012, firefighters would fill in at dispatch and get paid as firefighters, including overtime and pension. They agreed to staff dispatch at a $16/hour flat fee as part of the larger agreement to staff that engine at Station Two.

In addition, now when an employee goes out because of an injury, the town can request an independent medical exam after two months; previously, the town had to wait six months. The firefighters also agreed to increase their pension contribution from 8 percent to 10 percent and to add language to the contract that mirrored the state’s pension reform, requiring 25 years of service instead of the previous 20 before a firefighter to retire with pension.

Perry said during his time in the union, whenever there was an issue, the two sides would sit down and talk and that’s not happening now.

“How can we try to be part of the solution, if they won’t talk to us?”

 

One Reply to “Town Manager Says Fire Budget ’Unsustainable’; Firefighters Say, ‘Just Talk to Us’”

  1. This is an interesting dilemma – cutting fire services in a town that continues to grow and with the addition of a growing NEIT campus (btw which does not yet have its own services) versus not hiring additional firefighters to cut the overtime amount. Let’s not forget that East Greenwich still has new homes being built and the potential for more due to vacant land, it is at the crossroads of Rts 95, 4, and 2 (where EG emergency is required to respond to a bulk of calls) and several nursing home facilities. The lack of long term vision is disturbing. I’d also point out Ms. Corrigan did not release the contract for Berkshire Advisors (the fire consultant for the town) so we could see what taxpayers are on the hook for. And then there’s the fact that Ms. Corrigan herself continues to work for Central Coventry Fire District while receiving her quite large salary in this town. Plus Ms. Corrigan, Ms. Dykeman and Ms. Cienki have already led us into one lawsuit with others to follow. Not talking to the fire department might be personally satisfying to these three but have done nothing to help this town.

    This is a town that cannot offer a fully functioning high school library nor full bus services to our youngest town members (can’t wait for winter with snow backs and kids trying to cross). Let’s not forget that President Cienki and VP Todd never made any fuss last year when the firefighters contract was signed.

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