WOONSOCKET – In a milestone for its five-year solvency plan, the Budget Commission ratified collective bargaining agreements with five labor unions representing teachers, education paraprofessionals, City Hall workers, public works crews and others on Friday.
The mood was celebratory but restrained as the panel voted to approve agreements that represent millions of dollars in savings to the nearly-bankrupt city through 2017.
As Mayor Leo T. Fontaine said, “We’ve done a lot of work and there’s a lot of relief that we’ve reached this point. But I don’t want anybody to think it’s over. There’s still a lot of work to do... There’s still a lot of people who aren’t so happy about where we’re at.”
Some of those people are members of the police and firefighter pension system, who haven’t reached a consensus on the key concessions accepted by the unions, mostly involving cuts in health benefits. In a separate action, the panel voted to impose the changes on them involuntarily, a move that could be challenged in court.
“Suffice it to say we are doing things within the law,” said lawyer Sara Rapport, who was involved in the negotiations. “These are not broken contracts. These are modified contracts because of a financial emergency. The courts ask us to be as gentle and kind as we can and I think we have done that.”
The agenda of Friday’s rare Friday afternoon meeting in Harris Hall listed the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, Local 404, as being up for a ratification vote. But members were apparently unable to pull off a deal in time and rescheduled an emergency meeting to settle up with the IBPO on Monday.
The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 732 was the only major city union omitted from the agenda completely. Firefighters are still operating under a contract that doesn’t expire for another year. But all the other groups that approved new deals with the city were operating under contracts that were due to expire at midnight Sunday, the last day of the fiscal year.
They included Rhode Island Council 94 Local 670, whose members represent municipal workers at City Hall, highway laborers and workers in the water division. The latter were among the hardest to please, largely because members were deeply concerned about losing their jobs and other benefits in the impending privatization of a new $50 million water treatment plan for which the city is now preparing bids.
John Burns, a staff representative for Council 94, said the union was able to reach a compromise with the city that preserves about two thirds of the jobs in the division, or about 20 in all, as union positions. In effect, he said, the deal makes the water division a public-private partnership, but members still made deep sacrifices to accommodate the city.
“Once again our members have stepped up to the plate and made important concessions,” he said. “Obviously it’s a hardship on many of the members.”
Pacts were also ratified with Council 94 Local 3851, which represents mid-level managers at City Hall; Council 94 Local 1137, which represents school support employees at the Woonsocket Education Department; the American Federation of Teachers Local 951, which represents teachers; and the American Federation of Teachers Local 951 paraprofessionals sub-unit.
In general, the lion’s share of the savings that will accrue to the city as a result of the new pacts comes from abolishing the hodgepodge of health care plans that have long covered the groups. As of Monday, they will be switched to a single Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan that is less costly than most have now. They will also be required to pay 20 percent of the annual premium, plus a $500 a year deductible or individuals, $1,000 for families, according to lawyer Daniel Kinder, the lead attorney in charge of the negotiations.
Some of the lowest paid workers won’t be forced to pay the 20 percent co-share immediately. In view of their comparatively low salaries, some Local 951’s paraprofessionals, will start out with co-pays of 14 percent and be phased into the 20 percent level at the rate of 2 percent a year.
Every group managed to find a way to negotiate small salary hikes into the new five-year deals, most ranging between 1 and 1.75 percent. The AFT’s teachers took a deferred 2 percent pay hike that won’t kick in until the first day of 2018. But members of the commission said the unions made sacrifices in other benefits to make up for the raises, which will cost a cumulative $1.7 million over the span of five years.
But the combined savings of the pacts through the end of fiscal 2017 checks in at roughly $5 million in operating revenues, despite the raises, according to documents released by the commission. In part by shifting retirees from private plans to Medicare when they’re age-eligible, officials say the deals will also take a deep bite out of a projected tab of some $20 million in post-employment benefits the city was to incur by 2017, but those figures weren’t immediately available.
Members of the budget commission, the lawyers who negotiated on their behalf, and state Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly took turns publicly thanking the unions for their sacrifices. Under the circumstances, Gallogly said “we couldn’t have expected people to be better.”
“It was a monumental endeavor,” said Kinder. “I’ve been doing this for many years and I’ve never been so consistently impressed by the goodwill and good sense of people sitting across the table from me in room after room after room.”
The big question now is whether the agreements will go far enough to satisfy the conditions state lawmakers have set for passing another key component of the five-year plan – a proposed $2.5 million supplemental tax for 2013. State lawmakers in the House and Senate have passed different versions of the bill, but they have said neither would be forwarded to the governor for his signature without the shared sacrifices of concessions from the unions, achieved through negotiation, not administrative fiat.
Commissioner John Ward, City Council president, said he was optimistic that state lawmakers would now act to approve the supplemental. If they do, he said, the city may finally embark on a path toward resolving its fiscal problems instead of thinking up strategies to do so.
“I am hopeful,” he said. “The outcome is essential to transforming Woonsocket from what it was to what it’s going to become, not out of desire, but out of necessity.”