Mayors, town leaders urge lawmakers to kill fire platoon bill

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With all eyes on Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s plan to restructure his fire department, municipal leaders from across Rhode Island are urging state lawmakers to block legislation that would make it significantly more difficult for them to take the same action in their communities.

In a letter sent to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed on May 20, Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee as well as 13 mayors and town administrators said a bill that would add platoon structures or shift schedules to matters that can be collectively bargained would “severely restrict the ability of our cities and towns to cost-effectively manage our fire departments.”

“By stripping away our ability to freely manage a platoon structure in our respective fire departments, the General Assembly will be removing an essential method for controlling costs,” the group wrote. McKee is the former mayor of Cumberland.

As it stands now, platoon structures or shift schedules are considered management rights, meaning municipal leaders can implement changes without the consent of any union. The bill would allow those changes to be part union contract negotiations.

The bill is sponsored in the House by Reps. John Carnevale, Ray Hull, Joe Almeida, Dan McKiernan and Ray Johnston and in the Senate by Sens. Frank Lombardi, Paul Jabour, James Doyle, Stephen Archambault and Frank Ciccone. All of the sponsors are Democrats.

Carnevale, Hull, Almeida, McKiernan, Jabour and Ciccone all represent parts of Providence.

Carnevale, a retired police officer who co-chairs the Providence delegation, told WPRI.com he was asked to sponsor the bill by the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters. He said he supports the legislation because he doesn’t think firefighters should be forced to work more hours than their contract calls for.

“I don’t think we should change the rules of the game,” Carnevale said.

While the bill has been held for further study in both the House and Senate, Speaker Mattiello told WPRI.com “we have concerns that any public safety employee would be forced to work such long shifts.” He said the House continues to gather information on the bill.

For his part, Carnevale said he thinks the legislation has the support of the majority of the House.

“I believe it would pass the Labor Committee and if it came to the floor, I believe it would pass,” he said.Raimondo also concerned

The municipal leaders’ letter was sent a day before Elorza announced he wants to move from four fire platoons to three, a decision that would require city firefighters to work 56 hours each week, up from the 42-hour work week spelled out in the current union contract. He maintains the change could save $5 million annually, but the Providence firefighters’ union has said its members expect to be paid time-and-a-half for each of the 14 extra hours they’re being asked to work.

The mayors and town administrators signing the letter included Burrillville Town Manager Michael Wood; Coventry Town Manager Thomas Hoover; Cranston Mayor Allan Fung; Cumberland Mayor William Murray; East Greenwich Council President Michael Isaacs; Johnston Mayor Jospeh Polisena; Lincoln Town Administrator Joseph Almond; North Kingstown Town Manager Michael Embury; North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi; North Smithfield Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton; Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien; Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian; and West Warwick Town Manager Frederick Presley.

“While we continually welcome the opportunity to negotiate with representatives of our respective firefighters, we must maintain some level of discretion as to the operation of our fire departments if we are to have a significant ability to control costs,” the letter stated.

Although Elorza didn’t sign the letter, he has said he opposes the legislation. Gov. Gina Raimondo has also said she too has her eye on the bill.

In a statement Wednesday, spokeswoman Marie Aberger said Raimondo “has very serious reservations about any legislation that would add more costs to our cities and towns – especially when so many families are struggling and we need to be focusing on economic growth.”

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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