March 22, 2011

"It's Just Enough" vs a $3 Million Increase

Monique Chartier

They get it up north; in one corner of East Bay, not so much.

Last night, the Woonsocket City Council unanimously confirmed Mayor Fontaine's shift restructuring of the fire department in an effort to alleviate a seven figure overtime overage. From the Woonsocket Call.

The council voted 7-0 to roll the 124 members of the fire department into three platoons instead of the current four, with an average work week ballooning from 42 hours to 56. Instead of working two 10-hour days, followed by two 14-hour nights with four days off in between, firefighters would work endless loops of 24 hours on duty followed by two days off.

Clad in blue and red, some 45 firefighters packed the hall to protest the proposal, but nearly as many citizens — some affiliated with the Woonsocket Taxpayer Coalition, a local government watchdog group, cheered the council on.

“I'm not faulting the firemen — they do a great job,” said Steve Lima, the president of the group.
“But $1.2 million in overtime is unacceptable in any economy. We can't keep working our overtime to pay for them. It's just enough.”

Concurrently, a sub-committee of the Woonsocket School Committee is struggling mightily to find ways to close a budget gap opened up by a pending reduction in state aid.

Contrast with the work product of the Bristol Warren Regional School Committee last week.

Superintendent of Schools Melinda Thies presented the school committee’s approved budget proposal to the Joint Finance Committee on Tuesday evening, asking the towns to share a requested increase of $2,916,164 for the school budget that begins July 1. That’s a total request of $21.7 million from Bristol and $12.2 million from Warren.

In defending this $2.9 million increase to the budget in a time of shrinking revenues and a lousy economy, the school committee pointed out that they had made cuts and balanced the budget last year.

In his opening statement to an audience of 250 people, Mr. Barboza noted the school district’s positive end to last year’s budget. A $22,700 surplus and over $2 million in funds reserved for cash flow and emergencies, he said, is the result of “doing more with less.”

* * *

To achieve the surplus, Ms. Thies said the district has made sacrifices, including an administration pay freeze, accepting a 20 percent co-pay to keep medical premiums lower, and a reduction in full-time employees. These measures were taken in the past year while the district experienced “an uptick” in student enrollment, she said.

Question for the B-W School Committee: what do you see as the frequency of the obligation to balance a budget? Once a decade? Every five years? Or is this, like, a one shot deal and you're pretty much clear of the whole thing going forward?

To the Woonsocket Mayor, City Council and School Comm: Roses and our heartfelt thanks for all of your efforts.

To the Bristol Warren School Committee: Raspberries and a nice, spacious drawing board. The job is not nearly finished yet.

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So when that exhausted firefighter struggles to save your life, and fails, just remember, they can handle the extra hours without pay

Posted by: george at March 22, 2011 11:37 PM

Or just maybe, the town made a mistake hiring you and there was a more qualified individual to do the job. Greedy SOB.

There was a union-toad letter in the local B-W paper last week using the same-old-thug code words without saying what she wanted: Raise Taxes to pay for my benefits. Typical phrases, "about the children", "we had a surplus", "we cut last year" all on top of the fact the two towns will lose 1M every year for the next 10 years. The letter had no mention of the number of kids, top step teacher salaries, obama-care costs, pension funding, just the same old SCREW YOU, PAY ME theme.

The 3M extra for this year will be 1.5M for mandatory raises and 1.5 for health, training, pension, etc.

Posted by: dave at March 23, 2011 7:41 AM

So instead of two hours overtime per week, the firefighters will now be working 16? I don't get it.

Oh, wait a minute, they'll be working overtime for regular pay.

Now I get it. I thought there were labor laws against this kind of thing. Going to have to ratchet up the union machine and beat this stupidity. Now is when I remember why I fully support labor unions, and see just how important they are.

Posted by: michael at March 23, 2011 8:36 AM

If you now have the same number of workers covering 56 hours instead of 42, don't you now have too many employees?

And if overtime is a concern, what happens when a fireman calls in sick for a 24 hour shift instead of a 10? Now won't the city be paying 24 hours of overtime instead of 10 or 14?

Posted by: Patrick at March 23, 2011 11:05 AM

I just wish that in its zeal to show a union what's what, the Woonsocket council had given a little more consideration to the fiscal realities Michael and Patrick mention. What plays to the radio talk show audience isn't always prudent fiscal policy.

Posted by: bella at March 23, 2011 12:39 PM


Please help by offering your suggestion (realistic please) to balance the budget in Woonsocket. Be specific, not just the usual talk show grandstanding.

The Ordinance requires two passages to take effect. A meeting is scheduled for next Monday to review the data collected by the Mayor to support his proposal. It will include all of the nuances mentioned here and in other places (including my email).

If this effort fails and/or proves impractible, then sigificant concessions in contracted benefits (and possibly pay) will need to be made by firefighters, police and municpal workers in order to avoid raising the tax levy beyond the statutory cap. Our tax levy has been increased at, or above, the cap for the last four years; last year at 11.5% to replace the lost state motor vehicle aid.

It may be easier for the 'burbs to cut enough in costs and raise taxes a litle to compensate for lost state aid, but urban cities like Woonsocket can't so easily make up the $9 million we lost out of our municipal budget (BTW, that's around 15% of revenue to support municipal operations, not including school aid).

John Ward, President
Woonsocket City Council

Posted by: John Ward at March 23, 2011 1:48 PM

These fire depts. have quite the scam going with their overtime rules and their "disability" claims. ALL municipalities need to take a hard look at how things are scheduled out, how sick time is manipulated among the rank and file and how these budgets are being busted. Places like Woonsocket and Providence are geographically small and their populations are garden variety urban. Nothing especially taxing about either community from a service point of view. Can't speak to Woonsocket but Providence needs a law enforcement investigation into that scam of a fire dept. Millions overbudget with a postage stamp size city.
Councilman Ward, the city of Woonsocket should hire a PI with a camera to shadow all city workers on disability. You'll be a amazed at how much money your city is being scammed by its' "public servants".

Posted by: Tim at March 23, 2011 5:32 PM


We would hire the PIs, but they're all retired policemen, some on a disability pension!

Posted by: John Ward at March 23, 2011 5:51 PM

Tim - Providence hired a PI to do just that several years ago. Guess what he found? Fraud.

Of course the union was totally against it and called it a "witch hunt." Witches, of course, being imaginary creatures while the fraud the PI uncovered (on video) is very real. PFD commenter Michael won't address the issue at all, no matter how often I ask him. Ask PFD commenter Tom Kenney if you want a laughable cover story of a conspiracy against the firefighters.

You know what I would say if my manager hired a PI to root out waste and fraud? I'd support the idea and I'd ask if there was anything I could do to help. But responsibility is a foreign concept to the "brotherhood," and they are united in solidarity against that kind of accountability. They call it a waste of money even though the PI pays for itself many times over. The union would have more credibility if it stopped shielding fraudsters and united with the city to protect honest employees instead.

Posted by: Dan at March 23, 2011 5:58 PM

John - go out of state for the PIs. If that's too expensive, hire a guy with a camera. The fraudsters are so brazen that a 10-year-old could catch them, see e.g., the bodybuilder firefighter out on back disability in Boston.

Posted by: Dan at March 23, 2011 9:48 PM


"What plays to the radio talk show audience isn't always prudent fiscal policy."

I'm sure that was on everyone's mind during this decision making process, "Hmmm, how will this play on the radio?" What's your answer to the problem other than silly cliches and bankrupting the city.

Posted by: Max Diesel at March 23, 2011 10:21 PM

That's the way it is, Max. I sure wish it wasn't.
There's a little thing called attrition that would solve a lot of these problems, but I guess it's not as satisfying as putting people out of work.
And negotiation must have become a dirty word. Both sides give a little, remember?

Posted by: bella at March 24, 2011 12:14 AM

Mr. Ward:

Instead of the snide remarks about retired policemen answer me you think any worker (public or private sector) should be expected to have their work load raised by 30% just like that? Are you going to raise their base salaries by 30%?

You smart people on the council and the smart mayor of your town put your heads together and this is the best you can come up with?

Michael is so right about the fact that these types of demands are exactly why working people in the public sector NEED unions. Without collective bargaining and representation types like you would pass the ordinances and tell us to take it or leave it. The more these types of ridiculous proposals are put forth (just like the absurd goings on in Wisconsin) the more you strengthen the resolve of working people to choose unionization.

Posted by: Tom Kenney at March 24, 2011 12:41 AM


My comment about retired policemen was in jest. Sorry if I'm not allowed a little levity. There are plenty of good PIs around, some of whom are retired police.

As for the longer work week, well consider that in general, 6 hours of every twenty four hour shift will be spent sleeping. That's 25% of each shift. If the schedule averages out to 56 hours per week, then 14 hours is spent sleeping, leaving 42 work hours per week.

Posted by: John Ward at March 24, 2011 2:40 AM

John, those of us not union afflicted got the tongue in cheek humor of your retired policemen comment. You'll have to excuse Mr. Kenney and his ilk. They take themselves far too seriously and certainly much more seriously than we take them.
Here's the problem with your formula from the firefighter union's point of view.
See, they want 42 hours for sleeping and 14 hours for work. Now do you understand their protest? lol
Hopefully one day in this country all public sector unions will be outlawed.
It's been an outrageous scam on the taxpayer dime. Got no problem with private sector unions. Public sector unions are the scam of the century and it's finally time that we're starting to do something about it.

Posted by: Tim at March 24, 2011 7:07 AM

Bella's new tinfoil hat is a size too small this week.

Posted by: BobN at March 24, 2011 7:17 AM

That's the problem Mr. Ward. Your comment about Police Officers shows your level of (or lack thereof) respect for police and fire. This is very telling in a city council member making decissions that affect public safety!!

As for your calculations, they are laughable. You point out that part of our shift is spent sleeping (some, but not all shifts) and calculate that we're not working. Even you can't really justify that statement,can you?

Posted by: Tom Kenney at March 24, 2011 11:41 AM

Have you been talking to the Capt of Engine 8 from Providence?

Posted by: Capt Steve at March 24, 2011 9:40 PM

"Your comment about Police Officers shows your level of (or lack thereof) respect for police and fire."

Actually, Tom, it doesn't. It was just a little joke.

Rhode Island's state and local tax burden is the fifth highest in the country. Clearly, contrary to Gov Chafee's mistaken belief, we have a spending, not a revenue problem.

So, Tom, what's your idea for reducing spending on the local level? Here's mine - it's twofold and it applies to both the municipal and the school sides of the budget:

Reduce the number of contractual sick days by half, stop their accrual (it's obscene that people retire with a "bonus" of a year's salary of unused sick days) but add a clause that creates a pool of sick time for genuine, serious catastrophic illness.

Secondly, stop paying an overtime premium for work over forty hours. Straight pay across the board, however many hours are worked that week.

This will have a dual effect: not only will it save money in itself but it will considerably curb the costly practice of "Hey, I'm calling in sick this week so you can fill in for me on OT; you do the same for me next month".

Again, if you've got ideas for reducing spending, Tom, bring them forward. We need all the collaborative help we can get on this front.

Posted by: Monique at March 25, 2011 7:30 AM


""" Clearly, contrary to Gov Chafee's mistaken belief, we have a spending, not a revenue problem. """

I agree. There are many places to cut spending, including the two you put on the table. Are you willing to negotiate with the unions for those concessions or is your answer the same as many conservatives are away with collective bargaining altogether?

Posted by: Tom Kenney at March 25, 2011 9:23 AM

As for the longer work week, well consider that in general, 6 hours of every twenty four hour shift will be spent sleeping.

Dude, seriously? You can't be that ignorant.

Posted by: EMT at March 25, 2011 11:07 AM

"Hey, I'm calling in sick this week so you can fill in for me on OT; you do the same for me next month".

If you knew how overtime is assigned, you would also know how absurd this little myth is.

Posted by: michael at March 25, 2011 2:49 PM

Mr. Ward,

I have been a PI for 28 years, with no law enforcement affiliation. I went into the service directly from High School and have been doing this ever since. I thought your joke (and I did see it as only a joke, was funny). I have worked for numerous cities and towns regarding their workers comp claims. If you need me...leave a contact number and I'll handle your workload too. I'm sure it's broad.


Posted by: Bill at March 27, 2011 9:52 PM

Just returned from Bristol-Warren JFC meeting. The Superintendent gave an emotional, adjective-filled speech full of irrelevant claims about the quality of education here, and implied that if the towns didn't give her everything she wants, it means we don't care about the children. When she spoke about how "we" gave up a 2% higher insurance co-share from 18% to 20%, and how "we" must deal with the immediate crisis by working together on a long-term plan for the schools, I wondered if she was a union negotiator or the Superintendent. She should be embarrassed by her performance.

The JFC correctly pointed out to her that they could under present law approve a budget that increases the tax levy by more than 4.25%, and she was asking for 9.9%.

Posted by: BobN at March 29, 2011 10:11 PM
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