North Kingstown firefighters will face a pay freeze and lose five years of pension eligibility as negotiations between the Town of North Kingstown and the fire union ended last week after nearly a year of arbitration.
In last week’s decision, the arbitration board decided in favor of the town to freeze salary increases for FY 2010. Out of five comparable communities the board looked at, three had instituted a salary freeze this year.
The board also decided to change pension eligibility from 20 years to 25 years. The two changes would be the only town proposals granted by the board. All proposals from the fire union, Local 1651, were denied.
“We were swinging for the fences and so were they,” said Town Manager Michael Embury.
The decision will provide no immediate monetary relief for taxpayers, though Embury says the pension change my save the town $13 million down the road.
"The arbitrator's decision was fairly neutral," said North Kingstown Fire Fighter's Association President Ray Furtado. "Clearly the town didn't really win anything. We didn't win anything. It was the taxpayers of North Kingstown that really lost."
Though the town officials scored two wins with those decisions, the arbitrators denied a proposal for 24-hour shifts for firefighters. The town proposed shifts in which firefighters would work 24 hours then have 48 off, averaging 56 hours a week. Though this would be 14 hours more a week than what NK firefighters currently work, there would have been no extra compensation for those hours. The shift change would have allowed the town to decrease the number of platoons from four to three, reducing manpower — a “significant cost savings to the town,” according to the board’s findings.
The Arbitration Board ruled that North Kingstown’s financial situation “does not mandate such a drastic change,” noting that no comparable community in the state implements such a schedule. In North Smithfield, one of the comparable communities, the fire department employs a 24-hour shift with a rotation of five days off and an average workweek of 42 hours.
"We're certainly pleased that the work schedule won't change," said Furtado. "The proposal from the town was radical and draconian in nature."
The board also shot down proposals by the fire union to increase life insurance from $60,000 to $100,000 and to award incentives to employees with specialized skills and education. The incentive program would have granted $500 per skill (such as paramedic/EMT training and fire instruction) annually, and called for stipends for those who obtained associate's, bachelor's or doctorate degrees, ranging from $1,000 to $3,000.
Now that the fire union’s contract, which expired July 1, is settled, the town moves on to deal with the police and municipal workers’ contracts, both of which will expire this year. Embury said he expects discussions on the fire contract to begin soon while the police and municipal workers’ contract discussions will likely begin in February.