— Johnston —

May 3, 2011

The Advantaged Class at the Town Level, Too

Justin Katz

Providence Journal reporter Mark Reynolds dipped into the pension situation in Johnston, on Sunday, focusing on this case:

Fire Lt. William R. Jasparro was 41 when he ended his 20-year career as a Johnston firefighter in 1990.

Jasparro's retirement package paid him about $18,255 per year [with cost of living adjustments] — based on half of his final years' earnings. He went to work in construction and later took a job at the state's Central Landfill, which ultimately paid him $80,000 a year.

Most folks would be satisfied with a "retirement" benefit payable for 30-plus years (plus health care coverage for life), assuming he lives to the median age for men and doesn't hand it off to a spouse. Eight years into his retirement (or perhaps "second career" would be more accurate), Jasparro sued to be bumped up to a disability pension, which would have yielded 100% of salary, tax free. At least by the article's description, it doesn't sound as if he had much of a case, but the town settled, giving him 67% of salary, tax free.

It occurs to me that Rhode Island would profit from a town-by-town investigation, with the results aggregated somewhere to give the public a fair sense of just how pervasive such deals are. How many people are collecting retirement benefits while working in another branch of the state's public sector? It'd be interesting to know. For example, another Johnston retiree, 51-year-old former police detective and union president John Nardolillo, is now a police officer in West Greenwich. Whatever his salary is, there, he's taking home $33,982 based on his previous career.

Growing up, I planned to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and adjust my income expectations accordingly. Rhode Island's public sector clearly has more than its share of people whose focus is mainly on working the system. And there's a lot of system to work. As much attention as I pay to such matters, I don't believe I've ever come across this factor, before:

Also, under Rhode Island law, the state pays the tuition for the disabled firefighter or police officer and his or her children to attend any Rhode Island state college.

It'd be interesting to see a total cost of that benefit and have the list of beneficiaries combed for young retirees who go on to second careers or intensive weight-lifting hobbies.

February 18, 2011

Pension Reform in Johnston

Marc Comtois

Out of necessity (ya think?) they're reforming pensions in Johnston. Stephen Beale reports on why:

One of the biggest problems is with disability pensions. Out of 71 retired firefighters, 34 of them are on a disability pension, earning two thirds of their salary tax free. During the tenure of former Fire Chief Victor Cipriano, 15 firefighters retired—and all 15 went out on disability pensions. Even Cipriano himself went out on a disability pension, earning more in retirement last year than he did while working.

To put the numbers in perspective, just 8 percent of the firefighter pensions in New York City are disabilities. In Johnston, the disability rate is above 40 percent. “Those are unusual numbers,” Rodio said.

Rodio has estimated that 25 firefighter disability pensions are in violation of not one, but two state laws—one that says a retiree cannot earn more than he did while employed by a city or town and another that says those tax-free disability pensions needed to be approved by the state retirement board.

The fix:
A police officer or firefighter who retires on a disability but gets another job will be considered partially disabled and can receive only half of their salary, rather than two thirds.

The ordinance also goes out of its way to define salary as base pay—excluding overtime pay, holiday pay, and other benefits from being used to calculate a disability pension.

In the future, a police officer or firefighter applies for a disability will have their case reviewed by three doctors—two of whom must confirm that the person is actually disabled. Once the disability pension is approved, a retiree has to undergo an annual physical and submit a sworn statement documenting how much they have earned for the year.

The three doctor review panel has been mentioned around here before and basing pension on base salary seems like a common sense thing. As does recalculating disability pension if the pensioner gets another job. However, as usual, this is all "going forward." It's not really clear if existing pensions will be reviewed and modified. Finally, its worth noting that, according to Beale's story, the public came out to lend their support to the proposal while police and fire were silent.

August 19, 2010

A Question on Pensions

Justin Katz

I actually agree with former Johnston Policewoman Michele Capelli's lawyer that the town has no right to demand that she repay a disability pension excess that was given to her erroneously — much less simply remove it from her bank account — unless there was some criminal activity involved in giving her the money in the first place. Johnston should improve its system for tracking such things and move on from here.

But the same article gives some information for which, I realize, I've no basis to know how to feel:

As of June 30, 2009, the town had 27 disabled retirees earning an average monthly disability pension of $3,088, according to records.

An average of $37,000 per year isn't all that much, assuming the retirees aren't actually receiving the money as gravy on top of other income, and we should definitely provide for public servants who are hurt in the line of duty. But is that number of retirees high? I don't know. Compared with my own experience in construction, it certainly seems like a lot of people to be paying for not working, but I wonder if a study has been done of other Rhode Island towns as well as municipalities in other states.

That's really the relevant question, and it seems like the sort of thing that somebody in the press, the government bureaucracy, or a think tank should be concerned about. Oh, to have a think tank's resources!

July 10, 2009

The Pervasive Structure of Rhode Island Corruption

Justin Katz

It would be the work of a lifetime of academic study to unravel the thread, but I've been increasingly impressed (in a bad way) with the intricacies of Rhode Island's structural corruption. It's as if certain principles of the culture filter throughout local society to create an organic network whose instinctual task is to create little pools of power and influence that political parasites can siphon and share.

Take, for example, local zoning regulations. A busy-body factor comes into play, as does a back-roads totalitarianism that seeks to freeze a town in time, but the effect of stringent permitting and zoning codes is to force individual approval (variances) of projects. When every change to one's property must be made "legal, non-conforming," a local board gains the power of arbitrary judgment; the projects are already contrary to the law, so the legal guidelines for arguing in their favor are limited, and the aesthetic and political guidelines are vague. It behooves residents, therefore, to have influential people around town think kindly of them, and it creates an advantage for, say, building contractors who have conspicuous success rates acquiring variances for their clients.

This story reeks of the insidious structure:

A Town Council proposal to expand the governing board of the Johnston Housing Authority from five members to seven has hit a roadblock in the General Assembly, where a key lawmaker says it appears the move is meant to "target someone" in a political squabble.

Sen. John J. Tassoni Jr., D-Smithfield, who heads the Senate Committee on Housing and Municipal Government, on Thursday, June 25, refused to release the enabling legislation for a floor vote. The bill was introduced by Rep. Deborah Fellela, a Johnston Democrat — whose husband, Henry, swore at Tassoni after the chairman shelved her legislation.

"It's quite obvious after what I went through on Thursday that there's a vendetta in Johnston and I'm not going to be part of it," said Tassoni. He declined to say who might be the "target" of the legislation.

Obviously, Tassoni's declaration that he doesn't want "to be a part" of a "vendetta" in a town that he does not represent is nonsense. First of all, the way for him to have stayed out of the squabble would have been to step back from the proposal and let it move to a vote; by blocking it, he's made his action much more intrinsic to the outcome. More significantly, it makes for an incoherent thought to call the broadening of power a "vendetta" — whereas, shrinking the board would push somebody out — unless one is protecting the influence of an individual member and sees that heightened power as a right.

The question is, which of the Housing Authority's commissioners wields his or her influence in such a way that a state senator from another town has an interest in girding it? And what reciprocity might there be?

June 12, 2009

Pay Increases But No Pay Raises in Johnston

Carroll Andrew Morse

Has the Johnston teachers union sold its junior members out? A cursory reading of Mark Reynolds' 7-to-7 item in yesterday's Projo could lead one to believe that the union has secured raises for it's higher-paid members, but nothing for the lower tiers…

Teachers at the 10th step will receive a 1.75 percent raise during the upcoming 2009-2010 school year while teachers at all lower steps will see no increase in their wages.
However, I think that it's more likely that the clause "teachers at all lower steps will see no increase in their wages" isn't quite accurate. The next sentence reveals that pay "raises" and pay "increases" are treated differently in the parlance being used, and that one can occur without the other…
The contract, which also covers the current school year, does not grant teachers any retroactive raise for 2008-2009, although teachers have received $452,000 in step increases, [Johnston School Superintendent Margaret Iacovelli] said.
So if what will happen in 2009-2010 is similar to what happened in 2008-2009, Johnston teachers in the lower steps will receive pay "increases" via progression through the steps, but not pay "raises" related changes in the amounts associated with each step.

The question is, does the parsing of an explanation in this manner help or hinder the public's understanding of the issues involved?

February 24, 2009

Science Education Breaks Through the Negotiation Firewall

Justin Katz

It appears that the most recent of the their multiple weeks off during the school year mellowed Johnston science teachers with regard to the new program that had recently been announced as foiled:

During their winter break, local science teachers changed their minds and decided to participate in a project to improve science education across Rhode Island, a school official said yesterday morning.

As of 10 a.m. yesterday, 14 science teachers and 9 special-education teachers had signed up for the program, gratifying the same officials who recently accused the teachers' union of trying to sabotage Johnston's leadership role in the statewide effort.

"I don't know what changed but I’m very pleased," Assistant Supt. Kathryn Crowley said. "I think they're going to benefit greatly from participating in this program. I thank them all."

Ms. Crowley should thank enraged Rhode Islanders, as well.

February 10, 2009

Semantic Games with Children

Justin Katz

How much of life is phrasing? When it comes to the political battle with unions, the spats are like Abbot and Costello skits, which (for the young'ns) often hinged on a semantic misunderstanding. One must read to paragraph six to reach the punchline under the headline "Teachers deny killing science initiative" (emphasis added):

The union has never taken a formal position on the matter, according to the news release that Kandzierski sent out late yesterday afternoon.

"To blame this on the teachers is nothing more than a political cheap shot and a weak attempt to cover up their own inadequacies in communicating this program to teachers," she said in the statement.

Nobody had suggested that union members sat down and took a formal vote concerning whether science teachers ought to participate in an externally funded program to improve science proficiency in the town. But school officials did notify the relevant teachers and sent them requisite information. So, in effect, the union is pointing its finger at the individual teachers for declining to participate, and of course, the union would defend with its claws any attempt to impart consequences for that decision. (Not to mention "unofficial" suggestions that the union might have made.)

Whatever the case, the situation provides a clear example of the insidious effect that unions have on a professional environment, especially one involving the nexus of children's education and taxpayer funding.