Progressives peeved by Elorza fire platoon changes

Mayor Jorge Elorza announced steps to address the city's structural deficit. (photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A group of liberal activists who backed Mayor Jorge Elorza’s bid for City Hall last year say he has gone back on a campaign promise.

Sam Bell, the Rhode Island coordinator of the Progressive Democrats of America, said Monday his group has voted to oppose Elorza’a plan to overhaul the city’s fire department, requiring firefighters to work an average of 56 hours each week.

“When Elorza was running for mayor, he told the Progressive Democrats on our written questionnaire, ‘as mayor, I will negotiate in good faith with public sector unions rather than attempt to pass unilateral changes without bargaining first,’” the group said in a statement. “By attempting to pass this unilateral change without bargaining first, Elorza is explicitly violating a campaign promise.”

Earlier this month, the city moved for four fire platoons to three, a change that required firefighters to go from working an average of 42 hours each week to an average of 56 hours. Firefighters are now required to work two 10-hour days followed by two 14-hour nights before they get two days off, a schedule that is not believed to be used by any other fire department in the country.

Elorza has said the change will eventually allow the city to meet the contractually-required 94 workers on duty at all times without having to bring in firefighters from other platoons and pay them time-and-a-half for the extra hours. He has said the modified schedule will ultimately save the city $5 million a year. The city and the firefighters’ union are currently in mediation over the amount workers will be paid for the change.

In a statement, the Progressive Democrats said the city should hire more firefighters in order to address the city’s overtime costs, which averaged more than $9 million a year between 2009 and 2014. The group went on to call the change “terrible public policy.”

A spokesman for the mayor did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

The progressives were among the most prominent groups to back Elorza’s campaign in the Democratic primary over the courting of then-City Council President Michael Solomon and Brett Smiley.

At the time, Elorza caught heat for telling the group that he was “very much in support of a municipal income tax,” a comment he claimed was “intentionally edited to mislead voters” by Smiley. Smiley later endorsed Elorza and is currently employed as the city’s chief operating officer.

After the primary, the group supported Elorza’s campaign against independent Buddy Cianci and Republican Daniel Harrop.

Although the group is known for supporting unions, it hasn’t always seen eye to eye with the firefighters. That union backed Cianci’s bid for mayor and targeted progressive favorite and former Rep. Maria Cimini in her losing campaign last year.

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

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