OT swells municipal cost of firefighters in RI
Overtime added 30 percent to the city's tab for firefighting services in 2018, during a period of ramped up hiring
The Providence Journal, R.I.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The raw numbers tell this story about fire-fighting costs in Rhode Island's capital city.
Providence paid $11.5 million in overtime to its firefighters last year on top of $26.9 million in straight-time pay and an eye-popping $24.4 million in required contributions to firefighter pensions.
Put another way: Overtime added 30 percent to the city's tab for firefighting services in 2018, during a period of ramped up hiring.
And the amount the city contributed to its pension fund for retired firefighters nearly equaled the current firefighter payroll, according to updated financial filings with the state. That set the stage for a hearing on Wednesday on a Senate version (S0747) of a mandatory 42-hour overtime threshold already approved by the House (H5662) two weeks ago over the vehement objections of cities and towns.
And Providence is not alone in its struggle to meet its manning requirements without paying huge amounts of time-and-a-half overtime pay.
In 2018, Cranston — the second-largest city in Rhode Island — was also in a bind, according to the latest "Supplemental Transparency Report" it filed with the R.I. Division of Municipal Finance.
Cranston paid $4.9 million in overtime that year on top of $13.3 million in regular pay to its firefighters, a $12.6 million contribution to an older, locally-run pension plan and an $811,899 contribution to a newer state-run pension plan.
Overtime added 27 percent to the city's firefighter payroll. Pension contributions for the city's retired firefighters exceeded the straight-time pay for Cranston's current-day firefighters.
Even with significant contributions to the pension fund for retired firefighters, the Providence pension fund is only 26.3% funded, and the older Cranston pension fund for police and firefighters, 21.9%, which puts both funds in what pension overseers describe as "critical'' status.
On Monday, the mayors of both R.I. cities came to the State House — along with a phalanx of town administrators — to protest the push by General Assembly leaders for passage of a package of union-backed bills they call "devastating."
They include the House-passed bills — up for a Senate Labor Committee hearing on Wednesday — to mandate the 42-hour overtime threshold and the indefinite continuation of expired police, fire, municipal and teacher contracts which, they say, will remove their leverage in future contract negotiations and lock their taxpayers into benefits they may no longer, in tough times, be able to afford.
All but three of Rhode Island's fire districts — Tiverton, North Kingstown and the Central Coventry Fire District — already have a 42-hour average workweek for their firefighters, which in Providence works like this: 24 hours on — 2 days off; 24 hours on — 4 days off. In Cranston, Mayor Allan Fung said, firefighters work two consecutive 10-hours days, then two 14-hour shifts before receiving four days off.
The raw numbers show that a majority of the larger cities and towns are unable to meet their manning requirements without significant amounts of overtime. The earlier House hearings did not delve into the impact that 42-hour overtime thresholds would have on current costs.
Derek Silva, the Providence fire union chief, did not respond to Journal inquiries about his perspective.
But Paul Valletta, the Cranston fire union chief who lobbies for the International Association of Fire Fighters, emailed this response to Journal inquiries about the 42-hour OT threshold: "Overtime has nothing to do with the schedules we work. OT is driven by our minimum staffing language and if our departments are at full complement."
The mayors of Providence, Cranston and Johnston told The Journal during Monday's news conference that they rely on overtime, as opposed to paying more to hire firefighters at an even higher cost with full salaries and benefits.
"It is cheaper for me to pay overtime than it is to hire a firefighter or a police officer,'' explained Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena. "When you look at each firefighter and each police officer, it's about $100,000 with their benefits... They get a clothing allowance and a gun allowance. The firefighters get an EMT allowance. I [would] rather have less staff and less legacy costs, if you will, and pay the overtime because...it's cheaper for me to pay the overtime than it would be to hire more personnel."
Agreeing, Fung and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza said the bigger threat from the 42-hour overtime threshold — and the indefinite continuation of expired contracts — is the loss of leverage in future contract negotiations.
In Cranston, Fung said, "Our full complement of firefighters presently stands at 196 for the entire department, which is down from 201 when I first took office....When we are down because of overall staffing and those that are out injured or even out for routine sick days, we don't have enough firefighters to fill the 41 [minimum manning] positions and it trips overtime for the city."
Added Elorza: "It's a poison pill to prevent any municipality from going to a three-shift schedule,'' with longer workweeks before overtime kicks in as is "commonplace in other parts of the country."
"Having the ability to do so...[provides] leverage,'' he said, "so that we can first bring them to the [negotiating] table and then, contract and bargain in good faith. Had it not been for our ability to do that [three years ago], I don't know what the City of Providence would have done these past several years. Instead of having surpluses, we likely would have had deficits.
"That might have been the death knell for us,'' Elorza said.
These are the compensation numbers reflected on the FY 2018 "transparency reports" from those cities and town with paid Fire Departments who have filed:
Woonsocket: Regular pay $7,313,409;OT $813,943
West Greenwich: Regular pay $193,047;OT $35,095
West Warwick: Regular pay $4,518,693;OT $1,204,504
Tiverton: Regular pay $1,946,395;OT $194,417
Smithfield: Regular pay $4,107,314;OT $1,015,196
Providence: Regular pay $26,871,543;OT $11,453,348
Portsmouth: Regular pay $2,403,184;OT $729,220
Pawtucket: Regular pay $10,458,773;OT $2,427,434
Newport: Regular pay $7,450,328;OT $972,614
Narragansett: Regular pay $2,599,603;OT $873,606
Middletown: Regular pay $1,799,301;OT $395,185
Little Compton: Regular pay $641,758;OT $106,096
Johnston: Regular pay $6,448,389;OT $2,585,732
Cumberland: Regular pay $1,239,801;OT $297,199
Cranston: Regular pay $13,296,915;OT $4,923,412
Barrington: Regular pay $1,878,510;OT $117,584
**Municipalities that had not, as of late last week, filed the "supplemental transparency reports'' included: Central Falls, East Greenwich, East Providence, Foster, North Kingstown, North Providence, Richmond, Warren and Warwick.
©2019 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)