WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — A Warwick City Council special meeting called for Friday is being criticized as an attempt at “ramming through” a new firefighter contract without vetting all the clauses and costs.
The meeting was called this morning by five of the council’s nine members “on behalf of Mayor Joseph Solomon,” and Council President Steven Merolla says the sudden development prompted the council solicitor to quit.
Adding fuel to fire, Merolla said he was served with notice of the meeting by a constable this morning at his law office.
“It’s the actions of a thug,” Merolla said. “To serve someone of a notice for a meeting at their workplace? Who does this? I was with clients at the time.”
Merolla said he did not know which five councilmembers called for the meeting.
Warwick business owner Ken Block said the three-year contract is deeply flawed, and falls far short of Mayor Solomon’s claim that it will save “hundreds of thousands” of dollars.
“They’re ramming it through,” said Block, a former candidate for governor. “They’re getting up a full head of steam and just trying to get this approved as fast as possible without vetting it.”
When the three-year contract was unveiled in November, Solomon called it “cost neutral,” insisting the agreement will save the cash-strapped city “$450,000 in the first year alone.”
Solomon did not respond to multiple offers from Target 12 to discuss the agreement.
After the meeting was called, a city spokesperson released a statement saying Mayor Solomon is aware of the meeting and “supports the Council majority’s decision to schedule a special meeting to address this issue.”
The union, Local 2748 International Association of Firefighters, overwhelmingly passed the agreement in November, in a step toward potentially ending a three-year, often bitter stalemate.
On Monday, the council finance committee recommended approval of the pact by a two to one vote, setting the stage for a potentially raucous council meeting on Jan. 6 featuring contract opponents versus firefighters.
Committee Chairman Ed Ladouceur was the dissenting finance committee vote but has yet to respond to a request for comment.
Councilman Stephen McAllister is one of the finance committee members who voted in favor of moving the contract to the full council.
McAllister told Target 12 he is one of the five members who called for the emergency meeting.
But he said while he was prepared to vote in favor of the agreement on Monday, he is now fielding calls from constituents and “has an open mind” heading into Friday.
“There are come things I like about the contract and some things I don’t like,” McAllister said. “I want to hear form as many people as possible.”
The other vote in favor of moving the pact out of committee was Councilman Timothy Howe, who said he is also one of the five members who called for the special meeting.
Howe said he “did his homework” and will vote to ratify the contract.
“The firefighters are giving up a lot,” Howe said. “This is a good contract in my opinion. There are some people who will always look for the nail in the tire.”
On Merolla’s claim the issue is being rushed, Howe said waiting to debate for the scheduled January meeting would’ve put the contract on a long agenda and potentially created a backlog for other important issues.
“He’s acting like he got sideswiped. He wasn’t. Many of us voiced that we did not want a backlog,” Howe said. “The Council president had ignored our concerns in the past. This was not the first time.”
In his initial news release in November, Solomon crowed about the deal establishing a “first-of-its-kind” trust fund to nibble away at the city’s $450 million Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) debt, involving mostly retiree health costs.
But according to Block, no one disclosed contract language that will pay firefighters’ families a “multi-hundred-thousand dollar” annuity upon their deaths.
Block said Solomon’s claim the OPEB Trust will save the city 30% of the cost of lifetime healthcare for retirees is off by more the 20%.
“There are provisions in this contract that are really awful,” Block said. “It’s not what [Solomon] claims it to be. This has statewide ramifications if other departments use this model.”
Among Block’s other concerns: he says the third year of the contract is basically blank due to ongoing arbitration between the city and the union.
“They want to ratify an incomplete contract,” Block said. “There are many issues.” The trust fund and blank part of the contract, he said, “are the two that scream out the loudest for, put on the brakes and fix them.”
The new contract is backdated to July 1, 2019, and does not include a raise for the current fiscal year, but boosts pay by two percent in the following two years.
The pact also cut four sick days, elimated one holiday and two personal days, and includes the implementation of a 24-hour shift schedule which “should lead lead to decreased overtime costs,” according to the city.
Union President Michael Carreiro called the contract fair for everyone and said the OPEB trust was a key component.
Councilman Anthony Sinapi said in an email he does not consider the timing of the meeting to be a rush, viewing it instead as a way to avoid backing up city business, the way other delays did “over the summer, into the fall.”
“I’m not going to let that happen again if I can help it,” Sinapi said. “It was shameful that we allowed it to happen.”
But Councilman Richard Corley said he does consider it a “rush” to hold a potential ratification meeting at the end of the week.
“Come Friday night and you will hear plenty,” Corley said in an email.
The debate is scheduled to start at 5:00 on Friday.