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Q&A: The High-Profile Dispute Between Providence Firefighters And Mayor Jorge Elorza

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Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and Local 799, the International Association of Firefighters, are locked in an increasingly bitter dispute about cutting...

Firefighters' union president Paul Doughty said the city is taking a gamble that could cost more in the long run.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and Local 799, the International Association of Firefighters, are locked in an increasingly bitter dispute about cutting overtime spending in the Fire Department, the latest in a string of conflicts between the union and city leaders. 

Here's a look at some of the key questions in the clash.

Q: How did this dispute between Mayor Elorza and the firefighters’ union get started?

A: Back in May, Elorza announced plans to change the number of daily fire platoons from four to three. That was after an independent analysis showed that without spending cuts or new city revenue, Providence will face a worsening financial situation starting next year. The city implemented the change from four platoons a day to three, and the firefighters’ union went to court to oppose it. They say the change amounts to working an average of 14 more hours a week, at a lower rate of pay.

Q: The dispute between City Hall and the firefighters has become very personal. Why is that?

A: If you ask the firefighters, they blame Mayor Elorza’s approach. Local 799 President Paul Doughty points to how Elorza did not tell him about the move to change fire department staffing until the night before the mayor held a press conference. In an interview, Doughty also criticizes how the platoon change was implemented.

“They didn’t do any planning for what was going to happen once they implemented -- what’s it going to do to family life, what the number of hours worked would be for the firefighters, and then what the fallout would be from that," Doughty said. "So it was just poorly planned, and poorly executed, and the effect really hit not so much on the firefighters, but on the firefighters and their families.”

Q: What’s the response from Mayor Elorza?

A: The mayor blames the firefighters for making the dispute personal. At the same time, Elorza remains unapologetic about taking steps he calls necessary for the fiscal health of Providence.

“Nine million dollars a year in overtime costs in our Fire Department. We have to get this under control," Elorza said. "If we don’t get this under control, our costs are going to skyrocket, our deficit is going to continue to grow, and this doesn’t bode well for the future of the city. We have to do this for the future of the city.”

Q: Where do things stand in this dispute between Local 799 and Mayor Elorza?

A: Earlier this month, a Superior Court judge ruled the dispute could go to grievance arbitration. City Hall has asked the court to drop the firefighters’ original complaint. Arbitration between the two sides is expected to take place in mid-December. Meanwhile, the firefighters’ union is starting to talk in different Providence neighborhoods about what could happen if the city loses this fight in court. Union president Paul Doughty says Mayor Elorza needs to rethink the implications.

“The upside according to him is a $5 million savings," Doughty said. "The downside is upwards of $20 million. It’s something that would be catastrophic, in our opinion, to the city. And it’s something that we think should go into his risk-benefit analysis about pursuing this lawsuit.”

Q: What’s the response from Mayor Elorza?

A: The mayor said firefighters have gotten accustomed to benefits that he says the city can no longer afford.

“This is not winning the lottery," Elorza said. "You can’t win the lottery on the backs of taxpayers. This is about myself and this office making sure that we’re looking out for taxpayers and residents, and letting folks know that the way that things have always been done in the past, that’s not how things are going to be done going forward. We need to address these issues, and we need to address them head on.” 

Q: It sounds like there’s not much room for compromise. Is that right?

A: There is a lot of sharp rhetoric between the two sides. Both Mayor Elorza and the firefighters say they’re open to negotiating, and they blame each other for not coming to the negotiating table. But the firefighters’ contract doesn’t expire until 2017. So it might seem unlikely right now, but we can’t rule out the possibility of a negotiated settlement.

Firefighters' union president Paul Doughty said the city is taking a gamble that could cost more in the long run.
Firefighters' union president Paul Doughty said the city is taking a gamble that could cost more in the long run.