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By PAUL J. SPETRINI
NORTH KINGSTOWNâA packed house at the Beechwood Center Monday night listened to impassioned testimony from firefighters, school committee members and spouses as the North Kingstown Town Council opened a public hearing on a revised ordinance that would mandate a scheduling change in the NK Fire Department to 24-hour shifts every three days.
Speakers questioned the ordinanceâs legality, the townâs need to make such a drastic change so suddenly and the effect it would have on local firefighters but in the end, in a split vote typical of the divisiveness of the issue, the council passed the revised ordinance, 3-2, setting off what is sure to be a long and costly legal battle between the town and the North Kingstown Firefighters Association, Local 1651, IAFF.
âIt has been important to the council to achieve some level of structural change in the way the fire department is organized and how it gets compensated,â said councilman Charles Stamm, who supported the measure along with council president Liz Dolan and member Carol Hueston. âThis is a financial necessity and Iâm not talking about one year, Iâm talking about the future and years to come.â
âItâs very difficult to sit up here and make difficult decisions for the town,â added councilman Michael Bestwick, who dissented along with member Charles Brennan. âI know one of the firemen said âhow would you like to be in our shoes?.â Well, how would you like to be in our shoes today? We wish things could be easy but theyâre not so we have to make difficult decisions.â
At odds Monday was a revised town ordinance titled âOrganization of the Fire Departmentâ which argues that because North Kingstown âstands in fiscal crisisâ due to a series of reductions in state aid and growing other post-employment benefit (OPEB) costs, a change to a three-division structure within the fire department is necessary.
The move, which the ordinance says would save the town $1.2 million in its first full-year of implementation, would change the current scheduling arrangement of department firefighters from two 10-hour day shifts followed by two 14-hour night shifts followed by four days off to one consisting of a 10-hour day shift followed by a 14-hour night shift followed by 48 hours off.
In opposition to the ordinance, speakers Monday questioned what potential risks the change could cause both to the safety of the firefighters themselves and members of the community who may need the services of the department.
The more prevailing point of contention, however, was whether or not the council could impose this change without collectively bargaining with the fire union and how the ordinanceâs passing might kill any chance the two sides had of reaching a deal.
âThe reason that we have collective bargaining in place is to stop renegade politicians from making decisions like this,â said Ray Furtado, president of the NK Firefighters Association. âThis is why we have important clauses like our minimum manning clause, like our right to negotiate because it insures a high level of public service.â
Prior to the vote, Hueston stated that the town had done everything in its power to reach a deal with the union.
âWe met eight times starting in October,â she said. âThe last time we met was almost two weeks ago and we, at that point, offered what we thought was a good deal for the town and for the firefighters. For the town in FY13, it would save $1,060,233 and in FY14 it would save $941,725. For the firemen, and we thought that this was a good deal, an increase in annual salary by 20 percent. Not an hourly rate but an increase in salary by 20 percent.
âI have the utmost respect for the firefighters but we have to come to an agreement. I wish we had come to an agreement. We did not. There is still time to do so.â
Furtado, who argued Monday that the union has come to the table offering âsubstantialâ concessions, was not only disappointed by the councilâs decision but felt the disclosure of the terms of negotiations was particularly egregious.
âThey clearly do not understand the basis of collective bargaining and its importance to us,â he said. âUnfortunately, as Iâve said, theyâve laid the first brick in the path of financial destruction for this community.â
Furtado and members of the union vowed to fight the change, which is effective as of March 1.
âWell, weâve already filed an unfair labor practice based on the first reading of the ordinance and the way it sits now, we will obey the law,â he said. âWe will attempt to continue to bargain this because itâs in the best interest of the taxpayers and the residents we serve. Itâs unfortunate that theyâve set this sequence of events in motion but itâs a severe fight we can not back down from.â
Council members Dolan and Stamm, meanwhile, hoped an agreement could be reached before any further legal action is taken.
âI donât like the position,â Dolan said. âI donât think anybody here likes to be on this side of the table either. With giving the date of March 1st, we are still leaving the door open to negotiate the effects of this.â
âWe respect and we admire the bravery of all you folks that put yourselves on the line every day,â Stamm said. âI truly believe you are all valuable members of the community. Weâre not talking about that. Weâre talking about the ability of this town and its taxpayers to afford the structure we currently have. I know you donât like that, I donât like that, but we have a duty and an obligation to the taxpayers now and in the future to manage in a fiscally sound way and I intend to do that.â