The Breaking Point
A year after the city’s former mayor sold a new firefighters contract in part on the promise it would save $600,000 the first year - the department has run more than $1 million in the red, largely because of a steep overtime tab that saw the top earner make $316,000 last year. Jim Hummel sits down with the fire chief to see what the department is doing about it.
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WARWICK - A year after the city’s former mayor sold a new firefighters contract in part on the promise it would save $600,000 the first year - the department has run more than $1 million in the red, largely because of a steep overtime tab that saw the top earner make $316,000 last year.
That’s more than four times his base pay, and $219,000 of it was overtime. That translates to his averaging 78 hours of overtime on top of his 42-hour average work week.
“The optics of that stink to the public,” said Fire Chief Peter K. McMichael, adding that the department is down 20 firefighters from where he would like to be. “We see people having to fill in, often in a mandatory manner, not having the choice. We’re doing a lot of ordering (overtime) right now.”
McMichael, a veteran of the Providence Fire Department who left to become chief here two years, is having to deal with the fallout from former Mayor Joseph J. Solomon’s decision not to grant the department’s request to fill 14 vacancies.
Solomon said in early 2020 that he did not want to hire more firefighters until a new contract was in place, and that covering the vacancies with overtime would be as cost-effective as bringing on more personnel.
Solomon told The Hummel Report on Wednesday that he stands by the contract, adding that overtime has always been an issue, but the department is saving money in other areas, despite the overall red ink.
“When you study the facts from a business point of view, paying overtime ultimately was cheaper for the taxpayer in the city than hiring more firefighters,” Solomon said.
But with the number of open positions growing every year because of retirements, McMichael said the department is at “the breaking point.”
The numbers tell the story: All but 16 of the department’s 176 firefighters earned more than $100,000 in total pay in 2020; 19 earned $50,000 or more in overtime, 95 earned more than $25,000 in overtime and the average overtime was $32,297 per firefighter.
The department also paid out $1.35 million in contract-mandated longevity payments to 143 members. The average payment was just under $9,500.
At the top of the earnings chart: Todd Berthiaume, 53, a 20-year veteran who earned $316,088 last year (his base pay was $71,659), including $219,549 in overtime. He’s followed by Robert Danella, 50, hired in 2005 and earning $247,317, including $152,729 in overtime; Michael Colantonio, 30, hired in 2016, who took in $202,750, with $116,869 in overtime; Nicholas Ullrich, 32, hired in 2013, who earned $192,400, including $101,097 in overtime; and Andrew Sisson, 33, hired in 2008, who earned $181,302, with $75,227 of overtime.
“We definitely need to bring people on to cut down on some of that overtime,” said Michael Carreiro, the union president, who has been with the department 19 years. He said the department has averaged six to eight retirements a year but hasn’t held a class for new recruits for at least five years.
“Being that heavy in the red on overtime is concerning,” said Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix, who voted against the contract passed in January 2020. “It seems to be higher than usual and is a very large number compared to other departments.”
The highest wage earner in the Providence Fire Department, notorious for high overtime costs over the years, was a rescue lieutenant who earned $221,000 last year, including $134,000 in overtime. But he was an outlier: the next closest overtime tab was less than $56,000 for a rescue captain.
As a department, Providence, with more than double the firefighters, paid out a total of $3.8 million in overtime in 2020. Warwick paid $5.7 million, an increase of $4 million in just four years.
The contract signed by the city and the firefighters union in January 2020 gained as much attention for how it was passed as for what was in it. The City Council got statewide media coverage when five members called a meeting on the Friday before Christmas to consider Solomon’s contract proposal -- which he said would establish a trust for retiree health costs, reduce time off, increase management rights, help with sick-time payouts, and save on overtime.
But four members of the council -- including the president at the time, Steven Merolla -- didn’t know the meeting was happening until receiving summonses at their homes or offices from a constable the day of the meeting. Rix got notification in an email while waiting to board a plane at Logan Airport in Boston to spend a week with his fiancé’s family in Florida.
Warwick resident Rob Cote, a longtime critic of the Fire Department, and former City Council President Robert Cushman, repeatedly warned the council that the contract would not deliver what the administration was promising. Cushman, a former chairman of the council’s Finance Committee, presented multiple pie charts and graphs trying to make his case -- to no avail.
On Jan. 6, 2020, the council passed the three-year agreement, retroactive to July 2019, on a 5-4 vote. Coinciding with passage, the Fire Department changed to 24-hour shifts, something that an increasing number of departments have done in Rhode Island. The old system saw firefighters work two consecutive 10-hour day shifts, followed by two consecutive 14-hour night shifts, followed by four days off.
The new schedule would see each platoon work 24 hours, with 48 hours off; then another 24 hours, followed by 96 hours off.
Though Solomon said he was going to begin hiring more firefighters after the contract was settled, the city was still waiting for an arbitrator's ruling on salary for a previous year and didn't know what kind of impact that would have on the 2020 budget. So the department missed out including positions for the current budget year.
The Hummel Report reached out to the nine members of the council who voted on the contract. Six responded.
“I thought it was a good deal for the city at the time. It had new things that had never been done before,” said Ward 7’s Stephen P. McAllister, who is now council president. McAllister added that he is concerned about the heavy overtime, but attributes it to minimum manning requirements with a short-handed department.
He also said COVID has boosted the costs, with firefighters having to quarantine from contracting the coronavirus, or through contact tracing, a sentiment echoed by Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis, who also voted for the contract.
But Ward 1 Councilman Richard Corley, who voted against the contract and lost his bid for re-election last fall, said he didn’t believe the agreement was going to do any of the things Solomon had promised.
Solomon also lost his re-election race in November to Frank Picozzi.
Corley, an attorney, said he was troubled by both the substance and process, adding that there was conflicting language in the proposal that never got resolved. “I voted against the way they were trying to deal with it,” he said. “I thought they were rushing things for no apparent reason. What was the rush?”
But Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi, who voted for the contact, said he had been given a copy of the proposal well in advance of the final vote. And that Solomon offered to answer any questions he had.
Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur said the former mayor oversold the benefits of the agreement. He also took issue with the mayor’s assertion that any wage increases over the life of the contract would be offset by other savings -- making it what Solomon termed “cost neutral.”
“The mayor’s entitled to his opinion, I’m entitled to mine,” Ladouceur said. “Mine was the reverse of his; I don’t see where it could cut down on any overtime.”
Ladouceur said it’s simple math. “If I give you 20 more firefighters with (benefits), it’s about $100,000 per person. That’s a total of $2 million. Our overtime budget last year was $5.7 million.”
McMichael said despite the financial bumps of the first year, he believes the contract will help taxpayers in the long run and that the administration was able to gain some long-sought concessions from the union.
It is unlikely the department will be able to solve the overtime problem for another year. Even if the City Council approves funding for the additional positions, the money won’t be available until the beginning of the new budget year July 1. And the chief says that while the department is beginning the recruiting process now, a 12-week fire academy wouldn’t take place until October, followed by an additional six weeks of in-house training in Warwick.
The chief is proposing to hire an additional 20 regular firefighters, and two full-time “floaters” per shift, who would be available when someone is out sick, on vacation or injured. If approved, that would bring the total manpower to 204. The department is in the middle of budget talks now.
Frank Picozzi, who became mayor in January, said he has authorized the chief to run an academy and will include at least 18 positions in his budget. “The overtime costs are skyrocketing and I really don’t think it’s a good idea to have people working that many hours,” the mayor said.
Picozzi said if the cost of overtime and added personnel was equal he’d rather have “well rested firefighters and a full staff.”
McMichael said while the highest wage earners are volunteering to work overtime, it is taking a toll on those mandated to stay and work additional shifts.
“Those negative impacts involve things like increased injury, stress on our firefighters from working extra hours, stresses on their family life because they’re not home,” McMichael said. “In some cases they might be working more than twice their regular scheduled hours in that week. And that comes with a cost that can be hard to put a dollar figure on. I believe the vacant number of positions we’re at right now does place that kind of hardship on our people.”
The chief said the department has an Employee Assistance Program that helps a firefighter and his or her family cope with a crisis, or other stress-related situations. Management and the union have an agreement that a firefighter can work a maximum 72 hours straight, before having to take 24 hours off. But it also allows for working another 72 hours after that off shift.
Does McMichael worry about anyone working those amounts of hours?
“Each individual case is different,” he said. “And that’s when their company officer and their supervisor, the battalion chief, has to keep an eye on the members of the department, to make sure they’re fit and able to do their job. Not everybody can do that. There may be people that cannot work that amount of hours and still function properly and then there are some that are.”
He calls the overtime “blood money” at the levels that some are working. “When you’re earning that kind of money and you’re working those kinds of hours, you’re not doing much of anything else. You really don’t have a life,” the chief said.
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