By PAUL J. SPETRINI
NORTH KINGSTOWN—Nearly 10 months after the town of North Kingstown and the North Kingstown Firefighters Association, Local 1651, IAFF, entered into arbitration over the 2011 Fiscal Year contract, an arbitration board released its ruling this week and, in a 63-page decision, gave little to either side.
In what could only be described as a “tie”, the arbitration board ruled in favor of a salary freeze for firefighters, denying the union a proposed five-percent increase, and extended the pension eligibility age for new firefighters from 20 years of service to 25 but stopped short of implementing a drastically-changed work schedule that was at the core of the town’s proposal.
The ruling, which was only good for the contract running from July 1, 2010-June 30, 2011, left both NK Town Manager Michael Embury and Captain Ray Furtado, President of the NK Firefighters Association, feeling unfulfilled.
“That’s what happens,” Embury said Tuesday. “I mean, there’s a disappointment on both sides I’m sure but that’s the arbitration process. You ask for what you ask for and basically it’s in the hands of the arbitrators.”
“Honestly, we’re certainly pleased that the town’s attempt to put us on a radical, 24-hour, 56-hour work week schedule was denied by the arbitrator,” Furtado said. “But, at the end of the day, we’re of the opinion that the taxpayers of North Kingstown were the only losers of this process. That’s really it. The town really didn’t win anything, we didn’t win anything but it was the taxpayers that lost.”
The biggest proposed change in the contract, initiated by the town, would have altered the way shifts are scheduled for NK firefighters. Rather than the current schedule of working two 10-hour days followed by two 14-hour night shifts followed by four days off, the new contract would have required firefighters work one 24-hour work day followed by two days off before recycling.
The change would have resulted in an average work week of 56 hours for NK firefighters—without a salary increase other than the overtime that would have to be paid under state law—but would have allowed the town to consolidate to a three-platoon schedule rather than the current four-platoon schedule, resulting, the town argued, in significant savings.
In its ruling, the arbitration board stopped short of rejecting the idea as a whole but stated that the current economic climate in North Kingstown does not warrant such a change at this time.
“The Board strongly encourages the parties to examine ways in which the savings identified by this proposal could be realized,” the ruling read. “It might be done by implementing the proposed twenty-four shift schedule for new hires or implementing it on a station by station basis where certain employees would prefer to work on that schedule. It is beyond the ability of this Board to make those decisions because evidence on such ideas was not presented.”
The economic climate in North Kingstown was at the center of the board’s ruling.
The town argued that because it has over $34 million in post-employment benefits (OPEB) liabilities, and because North Kingstown is still feeling the effects of an economic downturn, the shift change and many of the town’s other proposals should be implemented.
The union, meanwhile, countered that the town chose not to raise taxes as high as it could have under the law and, as such, left money on the table while simultaneously pointing to several studies that showed North Kingstown was doing much better than most communities financially.
Ultimately, the arbitration board accepted the town’s view of its financial situation—approving the salary freeze and raising the retirement requirements largely because of those factors—but its ruling does almost nothing for the town in the short term.
“The only issue the town won was a zero-percent raise, which we had offered as a concession,” Furtado said. “They won a 25-year retirement that’s not going to return any reward to the town for a quarter of a century. It’s only when new hires go out after 25 years potentially that the town will recognize any savings so that’s going to be, what, 2036 before that yields any money to the town?”
Furtado stated that he felt the concessions the union made would have saved the town more money had the two sides been able to agree to a contract without arbitration.
“To me, it’s a shame because we provided tangible dollars right now in a difficult economy that could have eased the burden on the taxpayer and the town chose not to accept our offers,” he said.
Embury, meanwhile, said the town was happy with the progress it made from this ruling and looks forward to future negotiations and potential future savings.
“As I said before, this doesn’t feel like a loss,” he said. “We’ve got long-term savings for the community. We’re going from a 20 to a 25-year pension for new hires. In the past, arbitration decisions have gone from 25 to 20. This looks like a possible reverse in the trend so it’s a good thing.”
Embury estimates that, ultimately, the changes will save the town close to $15 million but the arbitration process itself, which Embury said back in July was likely to cost an estimated $200K, is one that both sides hope to avoid going forward.
“I don’t think anybody wants to go to arbitration, whether it be the town or the union but we have a financial situation that we’re looking at short and long term,” he said. “There are certain things that we need to get in place and if we can’t reach a mutual agreement, the next step is arbitration. Everybody would like to avoid it but we’ll see what happens.”
Furtado, meanwhile, says the union will be ready when the time comes to get back to the table.
“Of course we are,” he said. “And I’m hopeful that the town and the council take a posture of working together to try to provide some real savings to the taxpayer and provide us a contract that, most importantly, keeps us safe but that also provides the same level of response to the citizens. They pay good money for their services and they deserve high quality services.”