Inside the high-stakes battle between Mayor Elorza and the city fire union

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When Providence firefighters’ union president Paul Doughty was summoned to meet with Mayor Jorge Elorza in Lili Marlene’s bar on Federal Hill last Friday night, he was prepared for bad news.

For at least two months, the talk around City Hall was that the mayor was considering restructuring the fire department to reduce the number of platoons from four to three with the hope of generating significant cost savings. Even when the plan didn’t appear in Elorza’s budget proposal on April 29, the rumors persisted.

But as Doughty, union vice president Derek Silva and Elorza sat in the bar munching on soft-baked pretzels and drinking beers for more than two hours, the hammer never dropped. Elorza never mentioned platoon changes. Doughty and Silva never asked.

That all changed Wednesday night when Elorza informed Doughty he intended to order Fire Chief Clarence Cunha to prepare for the platoon reduction. He vowed to not implement the plan immediately in hopes the union might be willing to negotiate changes. At a press conference Thursday morning, he said the changes were one way he intends to reduce a nagging structural deficit that threatens to grow to $19.1 million by the 2020-21 fiscal year if he doesn’t address it now.

By the time Elorza was finished talking to reporters, the firefighters were preparing for their latest battle.

Now Elorza is staring at the first true political test of the first-term Democrat’s nascent administration: a showdown with a union that may no longer have the ability to deliver the mayor’s office to a candidate, but still has enough muscle to cause a major disruption for any politician, as it showed in 2009 when Vice President Joe Biden refused to travel to Providence for a national conference because of the union’s ongoing spat with former Mayor David Cicilline.

“We have long-term structural problems that we need long-term structural solutions for,” Elorza said.

Elorza isn’t kidding.

An independent report commissioned by his office and released Thursday shows the city’s structural deficit – the built-in shortfall recurring in each year’s budget – will reach $11.5 million in the 2016-17 fiscal year and climb to $19.1 million by the 2021 fiscal year. Those figures stem primarily from a projected 7.5% spike in expenditures – largely from increases in health care and pension payments – and only a 2.5% growth in revenue over the next six years.

The mayor said Thursday those deficits could be much larger, noting that they include no raises for any city employee until at least the 2021 fiscal year. (A guaranteed 3% raise for the firefighters in the 2016 fiscal year is included because it was negotiated by the Taveras administration.) At the same time, the report assumes no tax increases over the same period, a pledge Elorza has not made.

While those deficits pale in comparison to the $110-million structural deficit former Mayor Angel Taveras inherited when he took office in 2011, the figures are large enough to prevent Elorza from making the strategic investments he envisioned as a candidate, particularly when it comes to education.

Elorza stopped short of pinning the blame on his predecessor Thursday, but made it clear that he believes certain decisions made in the past continue to haunt the city.

“The city has consistently relied on one-time budget fixes to balance the budget,” Elorza said. He noted that he recently had the opportunity to enter into a 10-year lease with Triggs Memorial Golf Course, but said it was “not in the best long-term interests of the city.” Taveras turned down a similar proposal late last year.

Elorza’s immediate plan includes adding more parking meters on Federal Hill, parts of the East Side and around the vacant former I-195 land, a proposal he says could add $2 million to the city’s coffers each year. In addition, he’s predicting the city will generate $6.5 million in new tax revenues as property values grow, even though his current budget proposal holds the line on all local tax rates. He has also said the city will realize savings in a plan to restructure the school department, although he hasn’t attached a figure to that proposal.Elorza: Platoon changes could save $5 million a year

But the most significant savings, Elorza says, will come from changes in the fire department.

By reducing the number of platoons from four to three, firefighters would see their average workweek grow from a required 42 hours to as much as 56 hours. But while anyone working over 42 hours currently is eligible to be paid time-and-a-half for overtime, the changes would result in firefighters only being paid their standard rate.

The benefit, according to Elorza, is that his plan would significantly reduce the amount Providence pays in callback and overtime, generating almost $5 million in savings each year. In the mayor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, the fire department’s budget is $74.3 million, just over 10% of the entire city budget.

Doughty, the union president, said he doesn’t believe Elorza has proved he can secure the savings he wants. He said “even a modest pay increase” will further reduce those savings. Although Elorza said layoffs are “absolutely not” on the table, Doughty said he believes the mayor will seek to reduce staff in the fire department.

“At the end of the day, we’re not sure he’ll save anywhere near the $5 million that he predicts,” Doughty said. “When pressed on it, he was unable to show us any numbers that show a savings.”‘A really big deal’

The backdrop behind Elorza’s announcement Thursday is a recent Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling, a bill designed to counteract that decision, and steady criticism regarding the cost of firefighting throughout Rhode Island.

In January the state’s highest court ruled that North Kingstown could change its firefighter shifts unilaterally, a decision Elorza says gives Providence the right to enact similar changes. One difference, according to Doughty, is that North Kingstown implemented its changes after a fire union contract expired; Providence’s contract with its fire union doesn’t end until next year.

Meanwhile, a bill sponsored by state Rep. John Carnevale would allow unions to negotiate platoon structures and shift schedules through collective bargaining, a decision that could effectively nullify that Supreme Court ruling. Carnevale is the co-chairman of the Providence delegation in the General Assembly. Three of the bill’s cosponsors, Reps. Ray Hull, Daniel McKiernan and Joe Almeida, are also members of the Providence delegation.

It is unclear whether Carnevale’s bill will win passage this year, but House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said Thursday “we have concerns that any public safety employee would be forced to work such long shifts.” Because Elorza proposed his changes before any action has been taken on the bill, it is unlikely his plan can be reversed by the General Assembly.

Elorza’s focus on the fire department also comes as former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block continues his statewide crusade against the rising costs associated with firefighting, which he claims are out of whack with the rest of the country. A report he issued earlier this year focused largely on the number of fire stations in the state – tiny Rhode Island has more stations than the cities of Los Angeles and Chicago – and the $300 million annual price tag of fire protection.

Block said he considers Elorza’s proposal to move to three platoons a step toward making “Providence look like the vast majority of rest of the country.” He said he hopes other municipalities follow suit.

“What Providence did today is a really big deal,” Block told WPRI.com.Union: Mayor should have negotiated with us

For Doughty and the 423 other members of his union, what Elorza did Thursday was take the first swing in what could be a protracted fight that will take place both in the courtroom and the political arena.

Doughty stopped short of saying he will seek an injunction to block Elorza from implementing his platoon changes, but he made it clear he plans to challenge the mayor’s proposal every step of the way.

On Thursday he filed a separate lawsuit arguing the city has failed to make it annual pension contribution on time for more than a decade, an action he acknowledges he took in part to fire his own warning shot at the mayor. Doughty also claims the mayor’s abrupt press conference Thursday is “retaliation” for another lawsuit both the fire and police unions have filed accusing the city of failing to pay proper overtime rates. Mediation for that suit begins next month.

Doughty said the mayor should have sat down with him to discuss platoon shifts before going public with his plan.

“I’m not sure if he knows that negotiations are supposed to come first,” Doughty said. “I think he would have gotten a better result.”

On the political side, Doughty hired veteran public relations specialist Bill Fischer as a spokesman. On Thursday, the union sent more than 100 of its members to the State House to ask lawmakers for support as they prepare to take on Elorza. The union – which backed Buddy Cianci’s bid for mayor last year largely because they didn’t believe any of the Democratic candidates gave them a reason to support their bids – now has all the fuel it needs to cause headaches for Elorza.

That could mean picketing events hosted by the mayor or causing a distraction at other politicians’ fundraisers he attends, according to Eyewitness News political analyst Joe Fleming. He noted that Cicilline, now a member of Congress, faced staunch opposition from the fire union for much of his two terms in City Hall because the two sides couldn’t resolve a contract dispute.

But Fleming said timing may be on Elorza’s side. Because he’s only five months into his four-year term, the mayor won’t have to worry about campaigning for several years.

Even then, Fleming said, it’s unclear how much sway the union still has at the polls.

“It bothered David Cicilline, but it didn’t cost him an election,” he said.

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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