2015-12-10 / Around Town

Council Ratifies Firefighter Contract

Agreement Also Inked with NEARI
By Barry Bridges

At their last meeting of the year on Wednesday, Dec. 9, Newport City Councilors unanimously approved labor contracts with the city’s firefighters and mid-management supervisors. With Councilor Kathryn Leonard not in attendance, the vote OK’ing both agreements was 6-0.

The three-year agreement between the city and Newport Firefighters Local 1080 is retroactive to July 1, 2015 and runs through June 30, 2018. It gives firefighters a 2.25 percent salary increase from the effective date and provides additional two percent bumps in 2016 and 2017, equating to a 6.25 percent total increase over the life of the contract.

The city also finalized a contract with the NEARI Supervisors Union, whose last contract also expired this past summer. The parties agreed to new terms that are retroactive to July 1, 2015 that will span until June 30, 2019. Because Rhode Island law imposes a three-year maximum duration for collective bargaining agreements, the council actually approved two NEARI contracts: the first is effective until June 30, 2016, and the second continues from there, running from July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2019.

NEARI employees will receive a 2.25 percent raise retroactive to July 1, 2015, and in each of 2016, 2017, and 2018 will draw salary increases of 1.9 percent or the percentage increase awarded to nonunion executive and administrative employees.

Newport’s finance department reported that the cumulative fiscal impact of the city's two dozen NEARI employees would be $339,314 in increased salaries and related benefits.

With the firefighters’ contract, the finance staff calculated that the compounded costs to the city for the higher salary levels over the three-year term will be $806,903. The city will also incur liabilities for increased clothing allowances and rescue pay, bringing the total of additional municipal expenditures to $969,893.

However, those costs will be largely recouped in future savings that will be realized through changes in sick leave payout policies and vacation accruals for new hires ($576,000), as well as a new plan for health insurance deductibles ($358,923), meaning that the city’s net increased costs under the firefighters’ agreement will be $34,970.

As the agreements came to a vote, Councilor Naomi Neville said, “I want to take a moment to thank both the staff and the unions. It’s a big milestone to get these approved.”

Referencing the negotiations underlying the contracts, Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano said, “These things don’t just happen. Certainly there were areas we didn’t agree on, but there were more areas that we did agree on.”

“I’m very proud that we were able to accomplish this. What a nice Christmas gift,” she added.

Prior to the evening’s meeting, Napolitano told Newport This Week, “The negotiations had a very good give and take. The results are very fair to the City of Newport and to the employees that we value.”

“With this deal, both parties felt that it was fair overall,” said David C. Hanos, president of the firefighters union. “The firefighters ratified the agreement earlier. With the savings that were achieved through tough negotiations, the contract is also good for the city.”

Consistent with the financial analysis from city staff, Hanos confirmed that other than salary increases, notable differences in the new contract surround health care deductibles and sick leave payout policies.

Under the previous contract, a firefighter could accrue an unlimited amount of sick leave and would receive a cash payout of 65 percent of the value of what was unused at retirement. Under the new provisions, a maximum of $25,000 in cash can be paid out, although time accrued beyond that value can be applied to an earlier leave from service.

“That was significant for the city’s purposes,” said Hanos. “They needed to limit their budget exposure. It’s also the case that people don’t like to see firefighters leaving service with big cash payouts.” But Hanos also described how sick leave balances may imply that the city has saved money over time by not having to frequently bring in replacement staffing.

The contract also implements a health insurance “hard” deductible of $4,000, replacing a former system of paying for care that was based on salary percentages. Hanos described the change as good for the city, and one that limits individuals’ exposure to high health care costs while also providing a more firm number that can be plugged in to family budgets.

“This [deductible] is exactly what the Newport police have under their new contract. The city wanted all of us on the same page,” explained Hanos, who said that similar plans have a successful track record in other Rhode Island municipalities.

Work shifts will not change. As before, firefighters will work two 10-hour days, skip a day, and then work two 14-hour nights.

Elsewhere, City Solicitor Christopher Behan told Newport This Week that a tentative agreement has also been negotiated for the approximately 100 members of Local 911, Council 94, of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). He suggested that the contract would be on the council’s agenda in January.

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