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Scott MacKay Commentary: Time For Elorza, Firefighters To Chill

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Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s first year in office has been dominated by a caustic dispute with the city’s unionized firefighters. RIPR political...

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s first year in office has been dominated by a caustic dispute with the city’s unionized firefighters. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders why the labor dispute has gotten so nasty.

In an era of precarious city finances, union-management battles have become  all too common. The cost of firefighting and rescue services has been an issue from western Coventry to the capital city, but in Providence the latest impasse has rippled from City Hall to the state Supreme Court and back.

The latest from Providence has the Elorza Administration accusing firefighters of malingering and abusing sick time. The contract between the firefighters union and the city requires that 94 firefighters be on duty at all times. Roughly 350 firefighters are spread on three platoons. Yet that includes those out with injuries or on vacation.

When a platoon drops below 94 members , firefighters from other platoons are called into work and paid at a time and half hourly rate.

This dispute began when Elorza surprised the union by making wholesale changes in work hours without warning and without negotiations. All this despite the fact that the union has a contract that runs until June of 2017.

Elorza claims the work changes will save money and were needed immediately because of the red ink threatening the city’s budget. The firefighters assert the mayor is making them scapegoats for the city’s financial mismanagement.

Much of this isn’t new; employee costs, especially health care and pensions, have become crucial drivers of the capital city’s budget woes. Two recent reports, one from the state auditor, the other from Moody’s Investors  Service, make this clear.

The pitched battle between the union and mayor has landed in court. So far, the union has been winning the legal wrangling and the issue is pending before the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

It never should have come to this. Paul Doughty, union president, says that while union-management relations were never easy, the current level of bitterness was never reached under former Mayor Angel Taveras.

Taveras, Doughty said, treated the union with respect and transparency, while Elorza and Public Safety Commissioner have sought to ``demonize’’ the firefighters and make them the poster children for overspending.

When labor disputes like this become personal, neither side wins. The rampant jump in firefighter sick time surely isn’t going to endear them to the people who pay the bills, Providence’s hard-pressed property taxpayers.

Doughty says morale is so bad among firefighters that many don’t really care what the public thinks. They are angry at being targeted and are simply adhering to the letter of their contract. It doesn’t help that the vast majority of firefighters no longer live in the city and pay local property taxes.

The  greedy public employee trope has been played over and again in recent Rhode Island political history. From the Statehouse to town halls across the Ocean State bloated budgets have been blamed on state and city workers, especially their benefits and pensions.

But on this dispute, it is difficult to discern the mayor’s thinking. At this point, he seems to be asking the high court to do what he and the city council haven’t been able to accomplish – negotiate a reasonable settlement with the union.

Perhaps it’s time to take a page from the Taveras playbook. Early in his mayoral administration, Taveras made a big mistake, which he later acknowledged, by become ensnarled in a rough joust with the teachers union.  Yet, after he settled with the teachers, Taveras and the council were able to come to terms with other city unions and actually win some concessions that arguably saved the city from bankruptcy.

How did this happen? Well, one important aspect was that Taveras forged a consensus among city council members. So far, that hasn’t happened with Elorza.  City Council President Luis Aponte has not been shy about criticizing the mayor. He said recently that ``we’ve created a set of circumstances that requires a steady hand and I’m not sure that steady hand exists right now.’’

Maybe it’s time for Elorza to look elsewhere for some of the $5 million or so he wants to save from changing the firefighters hours. With city government living paycheck to paycheck, there must be some other belt-tightening options.

Why not explore closing a fire station or two, particularly on the East Side? Why hasn’t the city instituted an employee hiring freeze if a deficit looms? How about shutting non-essential travel? Is it time to rescind the $1.2 million tax break given the landlords in the mayor’s last budget?

Nothing will happen in the firefighters versus Elorza matchup until the Supreme Court sorts this out. It is always foolhardy to predict what a court will decide, but the mayor shouldn’t be surprised if they say, in effect, that it is time for both sides to chill out and negotiate a truce.

The high court plays many roles, but it is not the panacea for the city’s financial troubles. Elorza and the council need to quickly come up with a strategy for keeping the city solvent by spreading the pain beyond the firefighters union.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at  5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org

Scott MacKay Commentary: Time For Elorza, Firefighters To Chill
Scott MacKay Commentary: Time For Elorza, Firefighters To Chill