PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A new contract between the city of Providence and its police officers that includes both pay raises and pension reform won approval by the City Council Finance Committee Tuesday night, setting it up for a vote by the full council next week.
The contract includes roughly $12 million in pay raises for members of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3 over four years starting in 2019, when the last contract expired. If approved, the city would provide back pay for the prior years, in addition to the future raises.
The pay increases are expected to be included in Mayor Jorge Elorza’s updated budget proposal for fiscal year 2020-21, which is set to be submitted to the council as soon as Wednesday.
The collective bargaining agreement elicited frustration from members of the public who testified at a hearing last week, questioning why the city would increase the police budget when residents had spent nine hours testifying in favor of defunding the police before the council last year.
“People have been demanding all season that the city reallocate funds from the police budget and towards other social goods such as housing, education, social and emotional and behavioral health, jobs programs,” Kate Schapira said at the public hearing. “This isn’t how I want to see our city spending our money as we try to recover from a pandemic year.”
But the Elorza administration pointed to significant concessions from the union on pension contributions and medical benefits, which they hope will set a precedent for future negotiations with the other unions representing municipal employees.
“In no way, shape, or form would the city be able to avoid paying raises to the FOP. That is not an option,” city solicitor Jeff Dana told the Council Finance Committee on Tuesday night. “We either reach an agreement with the FOP, or we go to arbitration.”
He acknowledged that arbitration — which in itself can be costly to the city — might have yielded smaller pay raises. But it also would not have achieved pension reform, he argued.
The agreement that was ultimately reached includes pay raises of 4.5% in 2019, 4.5% in 2020, 4.5% in 2021 and 3.75% in 2022.
In exchange, the union agreed that officers would gradually increase their contribution to the woefully underfunded pension system to 13.5% of their pay by 2022, up from 8% now. The contract also includes increased contributions by the union members towards health insurance costs and other post-employment benefits (OPEB) that they receive after retirement.
“It’s a good contract,” Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré told the committee, asking them to approve the agreement. He said the pay raises bring the officers up to salaries comparable with other departments in Rhode Island.
“This is probably one of, if not the best negotiations and agreement I’ve seen certainly in my career with the Providence Police Department,” Chief Hugh Clements said.
Chairman John Igliozzi particularly praised the pension reform, expressing hope that similar concessions will be made by the union representing Providence Firefighters and the Local 1033 city employees’ union.
“The unfunded liability is a real situation,” Igliozzi said. “It does have a massive cost on the taxpayer. It’s a drain on our ability to do other programs.”
Councilwoman Helen Anthony said while she wouldn’t vote against the contract, she questioned whether it was “putting the cart before the horse” to approve an expensive deal ahead of addressing the police funding concerns constituents testified about in that marathon hearing last summer.
The council is expected to consider ways to divert certain police calls to other social service agencies, which could be informed by a yet-to-be-released audit of the police department conducted by a private firm.
“We have to respond to our constituents to let them know what it is that we are going to do, and that we’ve been listening to their concerns,” Anthony said.
Igliozzi said those discussions are ongoing, but also said not everyone in the city wants to decrease funding to the police.
“My constituents have overwhelmingly said they believe the police are doing a good job,” Igliozzi said. “They want more policing. They want more community policing.”
Steph Machado (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.