Auditor: Elorza administration is wrong about fire contract savings

From left to right, city finance director Larry Mancini, Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare and city solicitor Jeff Dana. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)
From left to right, city finance director Larry Mancini, Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare and city solicitor Jeff Dana. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Elorza administration overstated the amount Providence would save through a proposed five-year contract with the city’s firefighters by $7 million, according to internal auditor Matt Clarkin.

In a memo sent Wednesday to City Council Finance Committee Chairman John Igliozzi, Clarkin explains that city officials severely underestimated the costs of adding 12 battalion chiefs to the department, even though the deal reduces minimum manning from 94 firefighters to 88 and decommissions two engine trucks and a ladder truck.

Clarkin estimates that the city will still save around $9 million during the life of the contract, a significant reduction from the approximately $16 million in savings the administration has claimed.

“To date, we know three things about this proposed agreement,” Igliozzi said in a statement. “We know that the administration is still requesting to foreclose on a critical opportunity for pension reform in the next decade. We know that the platoon problem they created 13 months ago by refusing to pay firefighters appropriately has left an outstanding liability of around $12 million. And now a $7 million shortfall in the savings publicly touted by the administration has been revealed.”

The Finance Committee held its first meeting on the proposed agreement Tuesday, but administration officials were unable to answer Clarkin’s questions about the discrepancy in savings. Igliozzi said the committee will hold more meeting and a public hearing before it votes on the deal.

The agreement calls for the city’s firefighters to move from three platoons back to four platoons beginning Nov. 12, but it is unlikely the contract will be approved by that time.

A spokesperson for Mayor Jorge Elorza said the administration is reviewing Clarkin’s claims.

The administration announced the five-year deal in September, holding a press conference to publicly tout a resolution to its year-long conflict with the firefighters. The dispute stemmed from Elorza’s decision to move the department from four platoons to three, a management right he is giving up in the new agreement.

Administration officials have acknowledged that the deal doesn’t include any potential back wages it may owe the firefighters for forcing them to go from working an average of 42 hours per week to an average of 56 hours through the platoon changes, but they have said the reduction in minimum manning and a requirement for new retirees to contribute toward their healthcare will generate millions of dollars in savings.

Igliozzi has long argued the contract doesn’t go far enough, making the case that a five-year deal should include provisions to make new employees pay more toward their pension, wait longer to receive a pension, and receive less of a benefit when they do obtain their pension.

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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