WOONSOCKET — The city is back in court with firefighters, this time in a preemptive strike against a possible future challenge of its plan for a makeover of the shift structure of the Woonsocket Fire Department aimed at reducing overtime pay.
At issue is whether the plan violates the city's collective bargaining agreement with the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 732. The city has asked a Superior Court judge for a ruling of declaratory judgment on the question, a type of order that would clarify the union's legal options, if any, after the shift changes are implemented.
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine said he is seeking the ruling because he wants to know for sure whether it is safe to incorporate the projected savings from the proposed shift overhaul into the fiscal 2012 budget. The mayor projects the plan will save about $1 million a year in firefighter overtime, but he says there would be little sense in pursuing the plan if it is vulnerable to a legal upset after the budget is approved.
“Although we feel pretty confident in our ability to do this, we would rather get a ruling on it as soon as possible,” he said. “We don't want to come to the end of the fiscal year and have it delayed with challenges at that point.”
The city filed papers in the case on April 23 with Associate Superior Court Justice Bennett Gallo. That's the same judge who upheld the city's removal of a ladder truck from service in the face of a challenge from the IAFF about a week earlier.
The regular-time work week for firefighters currently averages about 42 hours and results from a shift rotation of two 10-hour days and two 14-hour nights followed by four days off. The week would lengthen to 56 hours at regular time under Fontaine's plan, and the shift rotation would consist of 24 hours on duty followed by 48 hours off.
The administration says the changes are necessary to end the fire department's historic reliance on overtime to cover day-to-day operating costs – a pattern Fontaine says is no longer affordable in a new era of municipal austerity and vanishing state aid. Firefighter overtime accounts for roughly a tenth of all department operating costs – a practice that has become institutionalized in recent years.
This year, for example, the city budgeted about $1.1 million for firefighter overtime. The 124-member department's entire budget is about $10 million.
Fontaine's plan, which would all but eliminate overtime from the firefighting budget, was unanimously adopted by the City Council earlier this month. Though the council's vote has the force of law, members bent over backwards to portray their endorsement not as an ironclad dictum, but the starting point for contract negotiations with the IAFF. The union's collective bargaining agreement with the city expires on June 30 and the two sides have already had some preliminary contact, officials say.
Citing the ongoing talks, IAFF President Lt. Christopher Oakland declined to comment for this story.
“Right now we're not commenting on negotiations,” he said. “As long as we are in negotiations we're not going to be making any comment to outside media.”
The mayor's position is that the request for declaratory judgment is unrelated to negotiations, but it's clear that a decision in the city's favor would only strengthen its position at the bargaining table.
“My goal is to stay focused on having a positive outcome in negotiations,” says the mayor. “I want to keep any actions in court separate from negotiations.”
From his perspective, Finance Director Thomas M. Bruce III says the request for declaratory judgment on shift restructuring is more of a budgeting tool than an adversarial legal action.
“We don't want the fire department to try to get a court order to stop it after we've already committed to it in the budget,” says Bruce.
The city would be hard-pressed to find other ways of making up the savings if the shift restructuring were shot down after the start of the new fiscal year, Bruce said.
Woonsocket isn't the only community in the state where municipal leaders are pushing firefighters toward a 56-hour week in a bid to shore up their revenue-challenged cash positions. A very similar drama is playing out in Middletown, which envisions trimming about $300,000 in costs from its budget by moving to a longer straight-time week.
The city has hired the same outside lawyers to argue for the shift restructuring as it did on the dispute over the ladder truck – Daniel Kinder and Joseph Larisa, said Fontaine. In a related matter, the city council was expected to address their fees during an executive session at Harris Hall last night.