City's five-year plan moves forward with last minute agreements, legislation

City's five-year plan moves forward with last minute agreements, legislation

WOONSOCKET - Two weeks ago, things were not looking promising for implementation of the Budget Commission's five-year plan to reduce Woonsocket's looming deficit.

None of the city's unions had agreed to concessions mapped out by the commission earlier this year. A bill authorizing the city to collect $2.5 million in supplemental taxes for 2013 showed no signs of progressing, and separate legislation extending the time frame in which the city must pay back a $90 million pension obligation had yet to hit the Senate or House floor. Residents came out to vehemently oppose a proposal to raise trash fees that was slated to bring in $1 million in extra revenue, and the matter was tabled.

But much of that changed this week, leaving city and state officials, who have been working on the plan for more than a year, hopeful that the full agenda would soon be in play.

The Woonsocket Budget Commission ratified agreements with five collective bargaining units on Friday, June 28, confirming contracts with unions that represent several categories of the city's education and municipal workers.

Changes to the agreements include the switch to a single Blue Cross/Blue Shield health care policy for members of the five groups. The new policy has a 20 percent co-pay, with a $500 a year deductible for individuals, and a $1,000 deductible for families. The unions negotiated minor salary hikes into all five agreements, which are expected to save the city $5 million over the next five years.

The employee groups affected by the changes include: Rhode Island Council 94 Local 670, Council 94 Local 3851, Council 94 Local 1137, the American Federation of Teachers Local 951, and the American Federation of Teachers Local 951 paraprofessionals sub-unit.

As of The Breeze's print deadline, the commission had yet to reach an agreement, however, with two additional unions that are slated for concessions, according to the deficit reduction plan.

A contract with the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, Local 404, was originally on the commission's agenda for Friday, but was later removed. An emergency meeting with the police union was scheduled for Monday, July 1, but attorney Daniel Kinder told the commission the IBPO's union bylaws required that voting on the proposed agreement be extended for 48 hours. The commission scheduled a third meeting to address that contract for Monday, July 8.

The board has also been unsuccessful at negotiating a contract with the only union that still has an active agreement with the city: the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 732.

"They do not seem interested in any way in helping out," said Kinder.

That contract is set to expire in June of 2014, and any attempts by the board to enforce a new agreement would likely be challenged in court, though Kinder said that type of enactment was not outside the realm of possibility.

"There are portions of the Budget Commission law that would clearly and directly authorize dramatic changes in any department if the commission decided that was a good idea," said Kinder.

Health care changes also took effect for retirees this week, and the commission received the first of what may become ongoing legal complaints against its plan to alter benefits. (See story on Page 2.)

On Friday, a second lawyer involved in negotiations on the city's behalf also defended the plan's legality. Attorney Sara Rapport said the agreements were not broken, but rather "modified contracts because of a financial emergency."

Meanwhile, the bill extending the time frame in which the city must pay back a $90 million pension bond finally passed. Senate bill 867, which extends the annual requirement from five to 25 years, was signed into law by Gov. Lincoln Chafee on Monday.

And with the news of union concessions, the long-awaited House legislation authorizing the city to collect $2.5 million in supplemented taxes finally was moved to the Senate calendar. Both the House and Senate had previously approved different versions of the bill, but members of the city's delegation to the General Assembly said they would not transmit the legislation to the neighboring body until they saw substantial proof that the commission had obtained concessions from the collective bargaining groups.

In a flashback to 2012, when city officials watched anxiously to see if legislation authorizing the supplemental tax bill would gain approval before the Assembly's summer break, the plan to tax city residents an extra $2.5 million was taken up on the final day of session. It passed the Senate with a stipulation: the city must gain $3.75 million in concessions from retirees and unions. (See page 3)

And while there is still much work to be done, officials were cheered this week by what could be the spotting of a light at the end of the tunnel.

The lack of agreement with the firefighter's union, according to Finance Director Thomas Bruce, will not derail the plan. "Their health insurance benefits are pretty much aligned with the others," he said.