WOONSOCKET — Continuing concern over pension reform and the city’s shaky financial condition are helping fuel one of the biggest retirement waves among police and firefighters since 2009.
Fourteen workers have tendered retirement papers since December — six police officers and eight firefighters, according to figures supplied by the city’s personnel department.
Nearly 50 additional public safety employees, including 18 police officers and 26 firefighters, are currently eligible to retire with at least minimum basic pension benefits.
The question is, how many more will leave before rollbacks approved by the General Assembly take effect on July 1?
Police Chief Tom Carey says he’s been admonishing his retirement-eligible workers not to make hasty financial decisions, but he’s already sketching plans to realign manpower in the event of an abrupt loss of staff.
“I can’t wait until something happens,” said Carey. “I have to have some kind of plan in place in case it does happen.”
If the ranks of the force thin faster that its ability to recruit and train replacements, the chief said some manpower could be temporarily diverted from certain divisions to make sure enough uniformed police officers are on hand to answer calls for service — the department’s top priority.
Some possible sources of backup help could be the juvenile bureau, the vice squad, detectives or the traffic division, the chief said.
The Woonsocket Police Department is already operating short-staffed under the terms of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers’ (IBPO) existing contract with the city. Normally, the department is slotted for 100 union positions (excluding the chief), but the union volunteered a 10 percent cut some three years ago in a concession to the city’s financial distress.
Since then, the authorized manpower ceiling has been gradually lifted, but it will be June 30, when the contract expires, before the union anticipates reaching full strength again.
Although several recruits are enrolled in the state police training academy, the combined losses from the recent retirements and existing contractual constraints have left the WPD with a workforce of 92 officers, according to Carey.
As a rule, those who have tendered their resignations are among the most experienced officers on the job. All, including the crop of firefighter retirees, had put in at least 20 years, making them eligible to receive a pension equivalent to about 66 percent of their salary, plus other benefits.
Detective Sgt. Peter Hopkins, for example, is not only a seasoned policeman, he has a degree in law and serves as the department’s day-to-day prosecutor for the presentation of criminal cases in District Court. He advised the personnel department that he intended to retire as of tomorrow, though Carey says he’s agreed to stay on until a replacement is trained.
Two others who departed in late December, Detectives Daniel Turgeon and Joseph Collamati, were experienced undercover cops, a position that requires unique talents that can be difficult to develop. Yet another, Detective Sgt. Shawn Kerrigan, had a reputation as one of the department’s more doggedly effective investigators.
Recruits come out of the academy with a certain basic set of policing skills, said the chief, but it takes time and, often, special training, to get them up to speed.
In a worst-case scenario, if everyone who is retirement-eligible were to leave by July, roughly a third of the available positions on the police force would be open, Carey said. The fire department is facing the same scenario, with the ranks of the International Association of Fire Fighters slotted for 124 spots.
“I try to caution anyone who’s thinking about leaving not to make a hasty decision and to think about the effect it’s going to have on their life and their family,” said Carey. “Consult a financial advisor and make sure you know what you’re doing.”
In 2009, when former Gov. Carcieri first began rolling back aid to cities and towns, fears of repercussions on health benefits triggered the retirement of 17 police veterans. Ironically, little happened to adversely impact pensions that year, and many of those who left ended up having second thoughts, Carey said.
Carey blames three factors for pushing police toward make-or-break decisions about their careers, including continuing uncertainty about the impact of legislative reforms on pensions. They may also be worried that Mayor Leo T. Fontaine will be looking for more givebacks in a successor pact to the existing contract, which is to lapse in about four months.
Then there’s the whole issue of the city’s financial solvency. Carey says there is widespread concern over the deficit in the school department and how large it is because the figure could have repercussions on wages and benefits.
In East Providence, an unmanageable deficit prompted Gov. Chafee to appoint a budget commission, with broad powers to cut expenditures, to take over that city’s finances.