NORTH KINGSTOWN, RI – Residents, firefighters and their families took to the microphone for 40 minutes Monday night, pleading their case against 24-hour-long shifts for the North Kingstown Fire Department. In the end, the North Kingstown Town Council narrowly approved the change to town law with a 3-2 vote – Democrats Michael Bestwick and Charles Brennan opposing.
The measure reduces the North Kingstown Fire Department from four platoons to three and moves firefighters from working 10- and 14-hour shifts to 24-hour shifts. The new shift changes will result in 56-hour work weeks and add 14 hours to firefighters’ weekly schedule. Originally, the town offered no compensation for these additional hours but modifications to the ordinance now include a 10 percent increase to annual pay.
“We have constructed a structure which is financially unsound and unsustainable,” said Council Member Charles Stamm, who spoke of the impacts dwindling state aid and increasing expenses have had on the town’s budget. “This proposal gives us an opportunity for significant savings going ahead.”
According to the town, North Kingstown lost $2.1 million in state aid alone for this year and anticipates spending upwards of $721,000 from its general fund balance to level this year’s budget. For next year’s budget, Town Manager Michael Embury is projecting a $1.2 million shortfall.
The language in the amended ordinance claims the town can save $1.2 million in savings in the first year the new shift structure is implemented. The ordinance also says that “the same savings, efficiencies and level of protection to the town” could only be attained if the fire department switches from all-professional to a volunteer department with call persons and private contractors.
Members of the North Kingstown Fire Department argued that the burden of balancing the town’s budget should not fall upon the backs of its firefighters and their families. Under the new shift structure, firefighters will work a 24-hour shift (10-hour on-duty day shift followed by a 14-hour on-duty night tour) followed by 48 hours off.
“This mandated 56-hour work week will not only affect 64 firefighters,” said Justin Puckett, member of the North Kingstown Fire Department. “This will leave 90 or so kids wishing they had more time with dad.”
According to Town Council Member Carol Hueston, the town and Lcoal 1651 have met multiple times since October to hammer out a contract. In the latest meeting, the town offered the department a 20 percent salary increase and 20 percent pension increase for the 24-hour shifts, along with 17 full weekends off each year and at least one weekend day off each week. The union, Hueston says, rejected the offer.
The changes will take effect March 1 of this year as the town and fire union – Local 1651 – continue arbitration for the second year in a row. Last year, the town’s proposal to switch the fire department to the 24-hour shift was shot down by the arbitration board.
According to Union President Ray Furtado, this move by the council circumvents the collective bargaining process and violates state law. The union filed an unfair labor charge with the state back in December, Furtado says. Though Furtado says the union is “willing to negotiate” with the town, the battle may very well be on its way to court.
“If you continue down this path of recklessness you’re going to leave us no alternative but to fight this until the last breath is taken,” said Furtado during Monday night’s public hearing.
The town is already embroiled in a legal battle with the North Kingstown School Department over a possible $1.2 million revenue shortfall in the school department. Attorney Dan Kinder, a labor lawyer, is arguing the case for the town and, according to figures from one North Kingstown resident, has racked up substantial billable hours with the town.
Chris Demers, a resident of Old Baptist Road, presented the council with a handout showing that the Town of North Kingstown has made $1.1 million in payments to Kinder and his associates. Demers urged the town to not spend more taxpayers’ money on labor lawyers.
“It greatly disturbs me that this council won’t think twice about paying the lawyers for hours billed but cries poverty when it come time to paying its own employees,” said Demers during public comment. “Instead, you aim to balance your mismanaged budget on the backs of working families.”
“The damages of this if awarded after legal fees will leave a crater where the undesignated fund balance is right now,” said Furtado.