WOONSOCKET — In a move that is likely to trigger another round of litigation with union firefighters, the City Council last night unanimously approved Mayor Leo T. Fontaine's plan to impose a shift restructuring of the fire department that would all but wipe out its $1.2 million overtime budget.
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.”
Local 732 of the International Association of Fire Fighters is already in Superior Court trying to force Fontaine to reinstate Ladder 2, a vehicle he has ordered out of service, depending on manpower availability, to cut down on overtime. IAFF President Christopher Oakland said that if the city forces the new shift restructuring on the fire department it would also be the subject of a legal challenge.
“I think it's ethically wrong, morally wrong, to require those types of work conditions without compensation,” said Oakland.”I think the firefighters care about the community, but I don't think it's fair what's being done here tonight.”
Firefighter Jodi Carboni said she felt the proposal was being forced on the department “in a very underhanded way.” She said, “We were lied to and we were played.”
Slated to take effect on July 1, the day after their current contract expires, firefighters think the legislation puts them at a competitive disadvantage at the bargaining table. Oakland said that if firefighters don't cave to the mayor's demands, he can impose the 56-hour work week simply by declaring an impasse in the progress of the talks as soon as the existing contract expires.
Fontaine spent about 15 minutes explaining his rationale for the shift change. Far from being a radical concept, he says the 56-hour week is extraordinarily common in many parts of the country, including many cities and towns in Massachusetts.
“What we're proposing is not something that's out of the ordinary,” the mayor said. “Our current contract is what's out of the ordinary.”
Fontaine said that many of the benefits firefighters currently receive were the result of contract talks that took place in a time of more plentiful resources. But Fontaine said those times have changed, and the wages and benefits that firefighters receive must change with them.
If implemented, Fontaine says the plan would eliminate an estimated $1 million in overtime to firefighters during the first year, and more in the future. Firefighters, he asserts, earn about $10,000 apiece on average in overtime per year on top of their regular salaries.
During the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2010, more than 10 percent of the fire department's roughly $10.1 million budget went for overtime – a figure just short of $1.2 million. Straight-time salaries and other benefits gobbled up another $6.4 million.
As for extra compensation for working longer hours during the average week, Fontaine said his intent is to be flexible on that issue. “Money,” he said. “is something that's negotiable.”
In addition to the legislation allowing the personnel changes, the council also passed a resolution of support for the shift restructuring which describes Woonsocket as a city that “stands in fiscal crisis.” The resolution also says the only other way the city could have achieved similar savings would have been through “unacceptable cuts in public safety and other essential” services or, possibly, by farming out rescue services to a private company supported by volunteers.
Before voting, members of the City Council took pains to express their admiration and respect for the fire department. They said the restructuring of the department was not a punishment but a necessary adaptation to harsh economic times. Ward pointed the finger of blame squarely in the direction of the state, saying the city wouldn't be faced with the such distasteful decisions had its aid not been slashed by some $9 million during the last several years.
“It's not your fault, it's not our fault,” he said. “It is what the state chose when it did it.”
Councilman Rogert G. Jalette Jr. said he works 75 hours a week in his flower shop and also puts in time as a city official – all without longevity pay, vacation time or other benefits firefighters enjoy.
And many private businesses are stretched so tight they're laying off people – something no one on the council wants to see happen to firefighters.
“Nobody wants to hurt anyone,” Jalette said. “Nobody said let’s have a recession so we can hurt people.”
Some members of the council said they were optimistic that the IAFF and the Fontaine administration would be able to see their way to a new contract on mutually agreeable terms.
“I view this as a tool to get to the change we can afford,” said Councilman Dan Gendron. “I would not feel comfortable with it here ending tonight. I know there's common ground we can come to.”
With reports from Staff Writer Joseph B. Nadeau