This story was amended Sept. 19, 8:30 a.m.
The Town Council approved a new, three-year contract with the firefighters union, less than three months after the town took over management of fire operations. The action came the same night councilors approved a separation agreement with Fire Chief Peter Henrikson.
"I think we have an agreement that's fair to both sides," said Town Council President Michael Isaacs. "Certain policies have been brought into conformity with the town. What I see in this contract is a fair proposal that provides some significant savings to the Town of East Greenwich."
In particular, he said, the new contract eliminates two half-day holidays for the fire department. In addition, an administrative staff position has been eliminated (the position had been vacant for several months), and the new contract institutes a new, two-tiered longevity pay system. That new system will pay any new hires a fixed longevity pay amount, versus the percentage made by firefighters hired up to now. Longevity pay provides compensation based on seniority.
"Instead of 5 percent, it's going to be a lot lower dollar amount for the town," said Bill Perry, president of the firefighters union. "So that creates a large savings for the town down the road."
For Isaacs, the biggest change was seen in all four municipal union contracts, starting with the police union in January, and followed by NEA and DPW contracts approved last week – a move to high-deductible health insurance. Not only is the system uniform across all town employees, regardless of position or union affiliation, it saves the town $74,000 in fiscal year 2014 and $125,000 in fiscal year 2015, Isaacs said. The firefighters were bound to their health care contract through fiscal year 2014, so health care savings from their contract won't be seen until 2015, he said.
The firefighters will get no pay raise in the first year of the contract, a 2 percent raise in year two and a 3 percent raise in year three.
"All town employees received the same percentage across the board including police," said interim Town Manager Tom Coyle.
"It was a good deal for both sides," said firefighter union president Bill Perry. "We were just happy to avoid arbitration. The town negotiated great and we're happy and we move forward."
When asked what made the difference, what brought negotiations back from the brink of binding arbitration, Perry said, "We had people we could sit down with. Before, no matter what savings you brought the fire district, there was just no negotiating with them. Now … we have people we could sit down with and negotiate. It's a mutual respect that we have. We didn't have that before."