Meanwhile, call volume has grown more than 100 percent in the 11 years since the number of firefighters was increased.
By Elizabeth F. McNamara
East Greenwich, R.I. – At a special Planning Board meeting last Wednesday on 6-year capital budgets, Town Manager Gayle Corrigan said firefighter overtime was potentially ruinous for the town.
“If we don’t do something right now, we are going to have to put $1 million [for overtime] in the firefighter budget for 2019,” she said. “I can’t put $1 million in there. It will destroy this town.”
Corrigan put the blame for that overtime squarely on the firefighters’ current collective bargaining agreement, which does away with four “floater” positions over three years (one per platoon). Floaters – extra staff to cover shifts in case someone’s out on vacation, illness or injury – receive regular pay rather than the time-and-a-half overtime pay.
Of the Town Council’s decision to approve the contracts, Corrigan said, “I find no evidence that they knew what they were signing in 2013. They didn’t do the financial analysis in 2013; it got compounded in 2016.”
Corrigan was repeating the analysis of the former EG Fire District merger with the town that she gave to the Town Council Monday, Feb. 27. Pivoting to the current budget, she told the Planning Board raising taxes by full 4 percent tax increase for Fiscal Year 2019 would give the town an extra $2.25 million in property tax revenue based on this year’s budget, but that “$2.25 million just doesn’t buy you very much,” she said.
In an interview Friday, firefighter union President Bill Perry said the firefighters didn’t bargain for eliminating the floater – they bargained for additional staffing, because of increased call volume and increased mutual aid calls.
“We needed more manpower,” said Perry.
The call volume for East Greenwich grew from 1,806 calls in 2000 to 4,122 in 2017 (EGFD Run Volumes 2000-2017). Through March 3 this year, the EGFD responded to 769 calls. At that rate, they will have 4,500 calls for 2018, a 150 percent increase over 2000.
Since 2000, the number of firefighters has increased from 20 to 36, with all of the increase happening between 2001 and 2006 (8 alone were added in 2002, after a house fire on Peirce Street killed 2 residents). In 2006, the first year there were 36 firefighters, the EG Fire District fielded 2,386 service calls.
Among the reasons for the increased call volume include the addition of several medical office buildings on South County Trail since 2000 and New England Tech’s arrival on Division Street in 2010. NEIT’s new dorm (which opened in September and will hold 400 at capacity) is expected to have an impact going forward. Perry said there have been “dozens” of calls to the dorm since September, for everything from EMS to elevator emergencies to alarms.
Perry said the firefighters knew overtime costs would increase without floaters. Fire overtime was averaging in the $400,000 to $450,000 range until 2015.
“They could hire four floaters and you’d go back to around $400,000 in overtime,” he said, meaning in on top of the four floaters-turned-into permanent-staff in the 2016-19 contract. Additional staff, of course, means additional health care and pension costs.
But Corrigan and the Town Council want contract concessions now, as she explained to the Planning Board Wednesday.
“The town does have a complaint filed with [Superior Court] Judge McGuirl to change the work week now,” she said. The town filed that suit in December. In a letter to residents Dec. 20 Town Council President Sue Cienki said, “After many hours of negotiation with the Union, we thought we had reached a deal; a week or so later, we learned that the Union was unwilling to honor its commitments” (Cienki letter 12:20:17).
The two sides had, in fact, reached a tentative agreement – they shook hands on a deal to reverse the decision on the floaters, bringing them back. But the firefighters strongly disagree with Cienki’s assessment of what happened next.
“We worked out the deal to give them the floater back and they turned down the deal,” he said. “We didn’t even have to negotiate with them – we have a contract through 2019.”
After the handshake deal, town labor lawyer Tim Cavazza wrote up the agreement. Perry said the firefighters were still reviewing that document – “we wanted a couple of wording changes” – when the Town Council voted in executive session Dec. 18 to file suit looking for court permission to impose a 56-hour work week on the firefighters. (Right now, the firefighters work 42 hours a week.)
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