Council failed taxpayers with contract OK

Council failed taxpayers with contract OK

I write this letter to express my disappointment and frustration that the Pawtucket City Council failed to do the right thing and voted to approve the school department's non-teaching union collective bargaining agreement at their last meeting. As a taxpayer, I cannot believe that, at a time when the school department is running yet another budget deficit, the council would approve a contract that increases their spending. As a former councilor, I am concerned that the contract they ratified is inequitable to our city employees and will damage future negotiations with our bargaining units. Finally, as a voter, I am saddened that the council made the decision not to exercise the power the voters gave them to protect our taxpaying public from irresponsible school spending. The council did not represent our interests with this vote.

The school department has claimed to be running a deficit of approximately $1 million. Aging buildings and years of failing to budget resources for needed maintenance mean that at any point another major facilities issue could require significant additional expenditures. However, despite these pressures, this contract increases costs by over $160,000 for the schools in a year in which they are already running a deficit.

The city's Local 1012 union has directly comparable employees to this employee group from the schools. Across the board, the contract pays school custodians and clerks 10 to 20 percent higher than people doing the same job on the city side. Additionally, it includes a 5 percent copay for health care. The same city employees are paying twice that. The new fire contract moves the firefighters to paying 20 percent by Fiscal Year 2016. The inequities in compensation between the city and school department are well documented and equally as frustrating. Finally, the council was given the opportunity to do something about the reckless spending of the school department and the inequities in compensation, but unfortunately they lacked the fortitude to do so. Now, with the precedent of council approval of this contract, they have made the administration's task of negotiating with our city employees significantly more difficult.

On its face, this is a two-year contract, but it includes five new step increases. In reality, the five steps potentially make it a five-year contract. A contract that locks in an almost criminal (health care) copay of 5 percent for five years. In today's world, all municipal employees should expect to pay 20 to 25 percent. I am proud of the courage Councilor Jean Philippe Barros showed in voting against it.

We, the voters of Pawtucket, gave the City Council final approval of school contracts to protect the taxpayers interests. The council is our city's sole taxing authority, and the voters resoundingly stated that they expect the council to ensure that their money is not being signed away by politicians and attorneys who aren't responsible for taxation. It appears that the council believes that this is simply a ceremonial ratification power, which couldn't be further from the truth. We, the voters, gave the council the power to protect our interests with regard to school collective bargaining agreements, and at its first opportunity to exercise this need check and balance to School Committee authority, the council failed our taxpayers.

Council President Moran called this contract a "mulligan," but our city cannot afford a mulligan. This contract, and the Council's failure to reject it, is a step backward toward the specter of bankruptcy that we have spent the last three years working so hard to avert. Two of which, I worked as a councilor alongside the Grebien administration to dig our city's finances out of the significant deficits we inherited.

Many of the members of the council went so far as to say that had the Grebien administration sent them a similar contract they would have voted it down. The double standards have to stop. At our city's first opportunity to benefit from the Charter change, the council failed miserably to protect our interests as taxpayers.

We need leadership that is brave enough to do the right thing. Clearly, the council, as currently constituted, does not possess the courage of its convictions. This election cycle will provide the voters of Pawtucket the opportunity to elect city councilors that will protect our interests as taxpayers and work to move the city forward.

Christopher O'Neill


O'Neill is a former city councilor and local business owner.