Warwick City Council Approves Contract
To no one’s surprise, the Warwick City Council passed contract extensions with the City’s fire, police and municipal workers on Friday.
The extended contracts, which will run through June 30, 2012, were approved on votes of 7 to 2, with council members Joseph J. Solomon and Steve Merolla dissenting.
Council members who favored the new labor agreements cited not only savings, but the fact that the unions’ willingness to negotiate spared Warwick the strife and legal wrangling being seen in other communities struggling with dwindling resources.
“This was reasonable men and women making reasonable decisions at a very difficult time for this city,” council President Bruce S. Place said in an interview Saturday.
The details of the deal are the same as what I’ve detailed already, so nothing new there.
I was able to attend the early part of the meeting and it went about as expected. The general feeling was that the city employees had come to the rescue of the city because of these tough times. There was a lot of verbal back-slapping as the three union heads got up to speak and all were met with generous applause from the crowd, which was 90-95% city workers.
A few Warwick taxpayers did get up to speak, and the two primary concerns were:
1) The wisdom of doing a long term deal in these tough times, when no one can forecast what’s going to happen.
2) A set dollar amount for health care co-share’s versus a percentage.
As to the former, Mayor Avedesian explained that a long term deal allows them to more accurately project their costs. Councilman Joseph Solomon countered this line of argument:
Solomon said he voted against the extended contracts because he does not feel it is wise for the city to lock itself into specific benefit language when there are so many financial unknowns and the fiscal pictures for all cities and towns is changing so radically from year to year.
“I could have maybe seen one-year extensions … but I did not want to mortgage our taxpayers long term,” Solomon said after Friday night’s meeting. “Our taxpayers simply cannot afford any more tax increases, and though I appreciate the hard work of our employees, I think we need to look at our current fiscal situation and not too far out into the future.”
…Like Solomon, Merolla said the new contracts obligate the city too far down the road, particularly when it is considered that labor costs account for about 85 percent of the city budget. “What we’ve done is lock in 85 percent of our budgets at a time when the city hasn’t set aside any money to pave roads and our bond money is frozen,” he said. “This vote is more important than any one budget vote.”
As to the health care provision, Mayor Avedesian explained that his Administration’s analysis indicated that–because Warwick is self-insured and that co-share payments are largely affected by the management costs–the city will actually do better thanks to increased competition (Blue Cross/Blue Shield, United Health and now Tufts) for health care services. The City’s health care contract expires and is going out to bid shortly (if it hasn’t already).
Still, banking on that seems like a bit of a gamble when simply shifting from a set dollar amount to a percentage would be a more financially sound solution for the long term. The Mayor also restated that the Legislature is discussing the 25% statewide co-pay and clarified that any such measure would be applied to all contracts negotiated after January 1, 2009 (at least for now–hey, we can have faith in the GA, right?).
In the end, while there is much to be said for the spirit of cooperation that embodied these contract talks, there was still too much left on the table by the City, especially considering the length of the deals. Yet, even then, there still seems to be little stomach for fundamentally changing the nature of these contracts–such as getting away from their hidden step/longevity increases–much less with dealing with pension reform. We continue to muddle along.