Still no settlement on Cumberland police contract

Still no settlement on Cumberland police contract

CUMBERLAND - On one hand, negotiations with representatives of unionized police officers, Lodge No. 14 of the Fraternal Order of Police, are continuing with Mayor Daniel McKee still expressing optimism that a settlement can be achieved.

At the same time, though, the town is asking a Rhode Island Superior Court judge to declare certain issues out of bounds, such as staffing or minimum manning. McKee contends those are beyond the scope of what will be negotiated and instead should be up to the chief to decide.

Town Solicitor Tom Hefner has said that if an impasse were declared and the contract moved to arbitration, a court decision now would preclude the arbitration panel from considering staffing and other so-called "management rights" that are part of a typical contract.

The expired police contract, which did address minimum manning, was without the usual rollover clause that would have continued all provisions until a new one is adopted.

The simultaneous actions - closed-door negotiations and Superior Court arguments - come more than two years after the last contract expired and as officers continue to work for the same wages they received in 2011.

However, McKee is saying that most of the discussion revolves around retiree benefits: the pension and other post-employment benefits, commonly referred to as OPEB.

An ordinance has been pending before the Town Council since August that would see the town attempt to skip the negotiating process entirely and instead make sweeping changes to those two benefits that are currently costing taxpayers several million dollars a year.

A majority of council members have indicated support for the ordinance, which currently takes effect on Jan. 1, 2014, but have been willing to table it every two weeks to allow negotiations to proceed.

Earlier this month, Town Council members got a closed-door update on contract talks at the insistence of Councilor Art Lambi, who had begun voting against the mayor's request to table it. Councilors emerged from that meeting and agreed unanimously to table it once again without discussion.

McKee told The Breeze the ordinance effective date could be changed as long as the two sides continued to talk. McKee said they are meeting "constantly" in search of a resolution.

According to the town's actuary, if Cumberland's police were to agree to all the provisions outlined in the tabled ordinance, taxpayers would see the annual required contribution to the pension, or ARC, drop from $1.98 million to $1.48 million.

The unfunded liabilities of the pension account would decrease this year from $19.6 million to $16.7 million.

For health benefits, or "other post-employment benefits," the annual contribution would drop from $3.5 million to $1.39 million.

If no changes were made, taxpayers' current and future obligations to retired police officers will be about $5.5 million a year.