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One Sweet Deal

The longtime chief of one of the smallest fire districts in Rhode Island is the second-highest paid in the state - the result of a contract the district gave him two decades ago,  with salary and benefit guarantees that one veteran labor attorney calls  “stunning.”

Hopkins Hill Fire District Chief Frank M. Brown Jr. had a base pay of $142,605 last year, which puts him ahead of every chief in the state except for Providence. He got a significant bump six years ago when he agreed to also handle the duties of chief for the  neighboring Central Coventry Fire District.

That increase will put the taxpayers of Hopkins Hill - a two-square-mile district with 6,000 people - on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in added pension costs, as well as sick and vacation payouts when the chief, who turns 64 next month, eventually retires.

 

The Hummel Report asked Vincent F. Ragosta Jr., one of the state’s leading labor lawyers, to review Brown’s contract, obtained earlier this year through a public records request. It is an extension of the agreement Brown signed when he became full-time chief at Hopkins Hill in 2002.

 

The original agreement was for 10 years, with a two-year severance if the district wanted to remove him, a cushion that remains in place. And it prevents the chief’s salary from ever being reduced, even if the district merges with another.

 

“Who gets a 10-year employment agreement? Top flight CEOs in Fortune 100 companies don’t get 10-year agreements. It’s not something that I’ve ever seen in the public sector,” said Ragosta, who has practiced labor law for 45 years.

 

Brown, whose starting salary was $52,500 21 years ago is also guaranteed a 3% increase every year (or more at the board’s discretion); the district gave him 400 hours of vacation time and 1200 hours of sick leave before he began as chief and he’ll be able to cash out the majority when he retires. Brown can also use sick leave as “personal leave time.”

 

“Sick leave is for purposes of being sick,” Ragosta said.“I know some contracts in the (collective bargaining agreement) do have payout under limited circumstances of some portion of sick leave; but generally speaking, sick leave should not be a form of severance.”

 

Ragosta said the totality of benefits makes Brown’s contract unique. “I have never seen something like it before,” Ragosta said.

 

By comparison, the base pay for fire chief of the seven largest cities and towns in Rhode Island is: Providence, $196,000; Warwick, $126,587; Cranston, $123,294; Newport, $122,414; Pawtucket, 120,000; East Providence, $116,616 and Central Falls, $94,000. Additional costs, such as health benefits, longevity, clothing and vehicle allowances, vary among the communities.

 

The contract also pays the chief for the cost of legal assistance for matters that “arise out of conduct within the scope of his employment.”

 

That means district taxpayers are paying an attorney to defend Brown in a six-count ethics complaint filed against him by a Coventry resident in June. The complaint, which the Rhode Island Ethics Commission voted to investigate, asserts that the chief failed to recuse himself multiple times on decisions that resulted in “direct financial gain.”

 

The Hopkins Hill Board at its June 15 meeting voted to hire Attorney C. Russell Bengston to defend Brown against the ethics complaint, at a cost of $250 per hour, to be paid for by district taxpayers.

 

An analysis by the Hummel Report shows that if the chief had received a 3% increase every year since starting full-time in 2002, Brown would have been making just shy of $80,000 in 2017 when Central Coventry brought him on as part-time chief. Instead, he was paid $95,500, in part because the district started adding vacation payout and longevity to his base.

 

With the added pay from Central Coventry, his salary in 2017 was $124,342 and has increased steadily over the past six years. The Central Coventry district has 20 square miles and 18,000 people.

 

The Hopkins Hill Fire District, which employs eight firefighters, four dispatchers and a fire marshal in addition to the chief, has an annual budget of about $1.5 million. Brown’s salary and benefits account for more than 10% of the entire budget. For example, in 2020 his total compensation, including retirement contributions, salary and other benefits cost taxpayers more than $170,000, according to federal tax forms provided by the district.

Ragosta said he was surprised Brown had a contract. Our survey of the seven largest fire departments in Rhode Island found that none gives its chief a contract.

 

“It’s shocking in the sense that Rhode Island predominantly is an at-will state (for management),” Ragosta said.

 

Ragosta stressed that his critique had nothing to do with Brown personally. “My criticisms are no reflection on the quality or caliber of the man’s work as a fire chief, as I don’t know anything about that or his background in the fire and EMS fields.  My comments are focused on the unusual nature of the employment agreement.”

 

Brown, a Coventry native, began as a volunteer firefighter with Hopkins Hill in 1976, at the age of 16. He joined the North Kingstown Fire Department as a full-time probationary firefighter in 1988 and had risen to the rank of lieutenant when Hopkins Hill came calling to see if Brown wanted to become its first full-time chief.

 

“They approached me and said 'We'd like to get you back in Coventry if we can work it out,’” the chief told The Hummel Report in an interview last week.

 

Brown said the provisions in his contract, which were drawn up for him by an attorney who had been a firefighter in Providence, sought to preserve what he had invested in North Kingstown. “I had to get to 20 years to keep my…pension,”  Brown said. “I wasn’t going to come to Coventry with a two-year contract. I had to preserve my pension.”

 

He said the 400 hours of vacation time and 1200 hours of sick time reflected what he had accrued in North Kingstown when he left in 2002. He said he was able to cash out some of the vacation time, but not the sick time.

 

“I love the town of Coventry, I grew up here. I wanted to come back home and retire some day, being home,” said Brown, who is in the Coventry High School Hall of Fame.

 

Brown said he did not take an automatic 3% pay increase every year. “I took what the firefighters were getting,” he said. “If they took zero, I took zero. I never took what the contract said.”

 

He said many years ago (he couldn’t recall when), the district incorporated vacation payout and longevity payments into his base pay, which is why the base is higher. But that also means taxpayers will have to pay him out at a much higher hourly rate for sick and vacation - and for his pension - when he retires.

 

Ragosta responded: “I get it from his perspective, I certainly understand, but a contract takes two parties and it should be negotiated at arm’s length. You could be a stellar performer in the fire and EMS service. But does that justify a contact that is so outside the realm of comparability that you simply say yes that everything is requested? In my view that’s not a responsible way for any public entity to negotiate and enter into an agreement.”

 

Brown said there was some negotiation between his lawyer and the district when the contract was signed on June 12, 2002 by then-board chairman Daniel A. Danis, who died two years ago. Joseph St. Jean was a longtime board member who chaired his last meeting in September before moving out of state.

 

In an email to The Hummel Report, St. Jean wrote that the contract was agreed to long before he joined the board, but defended the agreement. “The contract served to preserve the pension system credit (Brown) had accumulated, as well as other provisions such as sick and vacation leave,” St. Jean said in his email.

 

“It was mutually beneficial for the District to enter into such a contract as it brought on a full-time chief who had already been doing a remarkable job in a part-time capacity, while keeping the chief’s benefits on par with what he was leaving behind,” he added.

 

The information about the chief’s financial package is not readily available to the public or posted on the district’s antiquated website. Although Brown responded promptly to our request for an interview, getting information about his contract and benefits proved more challenging.

The Hummel Report submitted a series of public records requests beginning in June. The district invoked a 20-day extension to the 10-day period allowed for response by The Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act, saying that the request was broad in scope. For one submission, the clerk provided the requested information late in the day on the last day allowed by law.

Then, last month we asked for a list of board members and meeting dates, as the district’s website does not carry that information. In fact, the “chief’s message” section included statistics from 2014 and financial information from 2019-2020.

It took seven days to obtain contact information for the board chairman and meeting schedule. The clerk wrote in an email: “I apologize for not getting back to you sooner.  I need to run everything through the lawyer. Waiting for a response.”

 

The financial picture for Brown changed significantly six years ago when the chairman of the troubled Central Coventry Fire District approached the Hopkins Hill chief about helping out at Central. Central Coventry had been in and out of financial troubles for a decade and was having trouble keeping a chief - and meeting its bills.

“He was perfect for the job, being from town, and the guys would respect him,” former Central Coventry Chairman Fred Gralinski told The Hummel Report. “He took care of the door out (firefighting and emergency services), and we took care of the door in (the bookkeeping). I could go to him for advice, he didn’t hold back and neither did I.”

Gralinski negotiated a two-year agreement with Hopkins Hill that paid the district $33,000 a year for Brown’s services beginning in mid-2017. Brown said he received $26,500 of that, with the rest going to help offset his pension and medical costs.

The amount Central Coventry paid Hopkins Hill increased to $40,000 a year in 2019, with $33,000 going toward Brown’s salary. But an analysis by The Hummel Report shows the difference won’t come close to covering the expense to taxpayers when Brown retires at the higher rate of pay.

Not only will his pension be higher, but if he retired now the payout of his accumulated sick and vacation time would be at the hourly rate of his $142,000 base that includes the bump from Central Coventry.  It translates to nearly $100,000, plus an annual pension payout for the rest of Brown’s life that is significantly higher than if he had just been drawing a salary from Hopkins Hill.

“I wasn’t going to take that job if it didn’t count toward my pension. The last six years have been the hardest I’ve worked in my life,” Brown said.

St. Jean, the former Hopkins Hill board chair, wrote: “This agreement was of benefit to all three parties, and served as a benefit to all the citizens of the Town of Coventry, as Chief Brown is the only paid fire chief in the Town.  It should be noted that Chief Brown has done a remarkable job in serving both fire districts, and his steady and professional leadership has been a tremendous benefit to the taxpayers of both districts.”

 

The town of Coventry does not provide fire or rescue service. It falls on four districts: Hopkins Hill, Central Coventry, Coventry (locally known as Anthony) and Western Coventry. The Hummel Report first uncovered serious financial troubles within Central Coventry that eventually led to bankruptcy.

And a discussion has periodically been rekindled about whether the fire districts, with their own taxing authority and governing structure, should be consolidated and rolled under the town’s control.

Ragosta said it is unlikely if Brown had been hired by a municipality that he would have gotten such a generous contract.

Brown, who was opposed a decade ago to merging Hopkins Hill with other districts, told The Hummel Report that he’s changed his mind and is waiting for the results of a study about having a town wide department.’

“Coventry needs to change, we need to become one fire department. We’ve outgrown this (independent) district model. We’ve got four fire districts in town. The clean and easy way to do this is to make it a municipal department.”

 

The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to HummelReport.org. Reach Jim at Jim@HummelReport.org

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