PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré acknowledged Tuesday that the current delay in hiring a fire chief is partially due to his own pay, which would be cut if the job were to be filled.
Paré’s current $162,000 annual pay is bolstered in part with money from the vacant fire chief position, after the City Council cut the commissioner’s budgeted salary by $40,000 earlier this year.
The Providence Fire Department hasn’t had a permanent fire chief in more than four years, and Paré has been the acting fire chief since 2015. If he hires a fire chief his pay will be cut to a salary of $125,000 at most, according to the budget for the commissioner’s position.
“I want to have a fire chief in the position as you know,” Paré told the Council Finance Committee Tuesday night when asked for a timeline. “In this fiscal year there’s a dilemma. … Putting a fire chief in the position puts a dilemma in the budget.”
Paré, who oversees the city’s fire department, police department and emergency management agency, also said he doesn’t have a current candidate to fill the long-vacant fire chief job.
Paré was testifying before the committee about a proposal to raise the retirement age of assistant fire chiefs to 63, up from the current mandatory retirement age of 60. (The fire chief is the only position with a higher retirement age, which is 67.)
The proposal would directly affect one current member of the department, Assistant Chief Michael Bates, who Paré said turned 60 this year. Without passage of the proposed ordinance, Bates would need to retire on Dec. 31.
City Councilman James Taylor, a retired battalion chief with the Providence Fire Department, questioned why Bates wasn’t being elevated to the vacant fire chief job now. The promotion would eliminate the need for Bates to retire at the end of the year.
“Why don’t we make him the chief today?” Taylor asked Paré, his former boss.
“I’m not going to discuss personnel matters in an open forum,” Paré responded.
“It’s self-serving,” Taylor said in an interview after the meeting. “He won’t make [Bates] chief, because he wants his $40,000.” He suggested that Paré was waiting until he qualifies for a city pension in 2021 to retire and hire a fire chief.
Paré accused Taylor of having a “vendetta” against him, arguing that’s the reason the council cut his salary by $40,000 in the first place. (Council leaders said they cut the pay to a lower grade because it was never formally adopted by the salary review commission.)
“This is personal with Councilman Taylor with me,” Paré said. “When he worked for me there were issues, and now he has a vendetta. That’s the story.”
Taylor dismissed that reasoning.
“There’s no personal vendetta,” Taylor said. “I love the fire department. He is so arrogant and narcissistic.”
Paré told WPRI 12 he requested that the council raise the retirement age for assistant chiefs in order to retain talent and experience in the department, in hopes of ultimately elevating someone to fire chief.
He also pointed out that chiefs can be older than the rest of the department because unlike rank-and-file firefighters, they’re not going into burning buildings.
“You’re not doing the physical demands of a firefighter as you go up in age,” Paré said.
Taylor also expressed concern at the meeting that there was no fiscal analysis done detailing how changing the retirement age might affect the pension fund. He said older chiefs would likely stop paying into the fund, since they no longer need to contribute after 32.5 years of service, but would remain eligible for a disability pension until a later age if they don’t retire at 60.
Council President Sabina Matos, who sponsored the ordinance to increase the retirement age, said she agreed that the council may need to change the pension rules for non-union fire department employees, such as assistant chiefs.
“I think we have to make sure everyone is paying into the pension until the last day that they’re working,” Matos said.
The issue of the fire chief’s salary was hotly debated during the budget season this past summer, after the finance committee cut the position’s funding altogether because the job hadn’t been filled in years.
Amid opposition from the fire union and Paré himself, the council ultimately restored the funding in the final budget that was signed into law by Mayor Jorge Elorza. Pare told WPRI 12 in July he would “eventually” re-advertise the job to hire a chief, but has not yet done so.
Meanwhile, the Elorza administration solved the problem of Paré’s pay cut by giving him some of the restored funding for the fire chief job.
“The agreement in the budget discussions were ‘OK, don’t hire a fire chief and just backfill, make the salary of the commissioner whole.’ That was their agreement,” Paré said.
Paré said about 40 people have applied for the fire chief position over the last several years, but acknowledged it hasn’t be reposted publicly for more than a year. He declined to provide a timeline for when he’s aiming to fill the job.
The city paid $25,000 in 2016 to a Maryland executive search firm called Public Safety Solutions, whose CEO told WPRI 12 in July that he hadn’t worked on the project in about a year.
Paré said some people turned down the chief job because of the old mandatory retirement age of 60, before it was raised to 67.
The finance committee passed the ordinance to raise the retirement age of assistant chiefs on a vote of 4 to 1 on Tuesday. The measure now moves to the full council.