Fire department changes, school busing dominate public hearing

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – At least 50 firefighters packed Providence City Hall Tuesday night to urge members of the City Council to oppose Mayor Jorge Elorza’s plan to restructure the fire department.

The public hearing, held by the council Finance Committee, was designed to focus on Elorza’s proposed $696.1-million budget, but taxes, school spending and parking meters took a backseat to the issue of the day: fire platoons.

Elorza has ordered the fire department to shift from four platoons to three, a plan that would require firefighters to work 56 hours each week, 14 more than under the current union contract. The mayor has said he wants to collectively bargain pay rates, but has threatened to implement his plan no matter what by July 1.

“We have a moment in time here where the city is going to send a clear message: either it sticks to its promises and shows these members that they’re a fair partner or you can poison the well for their entire work time here,” Paul Doughty, president of the city’s firefighters’ union, told the committee.

Doughty and his colleagues have criticized the Elorza administration for failing to negotiate terms of his proposal before holding a press conference to make the announcement two weeks ago. He pointed to the union’s willingness to discuss contractual and pension changes with former Mayor Angel Taveras several years ago as evidence that he would have been willing to sit at the bargaining table with Elorza.

Other members said they were concerned about being required to work more hours with so much uncertainty over how much they’ll be paid.

Dan Iamarone, a lifelong city resident, said the additional hours would make it more difficult for him to coach his three children in baseball and basketball.

“It would definitely have a negative effect on my life,” he told the committee.

Matthew Gallant, another firefighter, noted that the city hasn’t clearly spelled out how much it will generate in savings after a new deal is reached with the union. Elorza has said the plan could save $5 million annually, but he hasn’t publicly discussed the amount he wants to pay firefighters for working an additional 14 hours each week.

“I oppose any changes to our schedule that are based on an uncertain plan which might show no benefit to the city,” he said.

No member of the City Council has publicly expressed support for Elorza’s plan, although the mayor would not need council approval to move from four platoons to three. Any changes made to the union contract would need council approval.

Councilman Nick Narducci, who represents the city’s North End, said he is concerned about unilateral changes being made to the fire department.

“We need to respect any bargaining units that we’re going to ask to give back,” Narducci said. “We did it with Taveras’s administration; we brought them to the table. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.”

Although Elorza’s proposed changes to the fire department could take effect as soon as next month, he did not incorporate any estimated savings in his budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The mayor’s tax-and-spending plan holds the lines on all city taxes, but does increase permitting and licensing fees by 10%. Elorza has also proposed adding about 700 new parking meters on Federal Hill, the East Side and parts of downtown as part of a plan to raise close to $2 million in additional revenue.

Among the more controversial issues in the mayor’s proposed budget is a plan to level fund the city’s appropriation to the school department at $124.9 million for a sixth consecutive year. School board members have said the decision will require the city to put off technology upgrades in schools as well as a plan to provide more free bus passes to high school students.

During the hearing, three members of the Providence Student Union urged the council to find the extra $680,000 needed to provide bus passes to all high school students who live at least two miles from home.

“It is everybody’s right to get an education,” Justin Hernandez, a student at Hope High, told to the committee. “It is also our right to have a safe way to get to school on time. But without a bus pass, it is almost impossible.”

“It feels like a punishment to these students and the only crime that they committed is that they live 2.5 miles away from the school,” Mahmoud Akid, who attends E-Cubed Academy, said.

The overall school budget is still expected to grow to $353.5 million in the 2015-16 school year thanks to a $7 million increase in state aid.

The Finance Committee has been vetting Elorza’s proposed budget for the last month and could approve it as soon as Thursday. That would set the stage for a vote by the full council next week.

The council must approve the budget twice before sending it to Elorza’s desk.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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