EAST PROVIDENCE — The decision Friday, Jan. 11, by federal authorities to release a significant portion of the city’s Google settlement money for use towards filling the gaping hole in the law enforcement pension fund could spur a larger agreement between East Providence and the police union. At least that’s the hope of rep Kevin Feeney and fellow officers.
The city is some $50 million in arrears to the East Providence Police pension fund and has a total unfunded pension liability upwards of $100 million. Friday’s decision allows the city, with continued annual contributions, to just about make it whole with the police union.
Mr. Feeney, an East Providence Police Department Detective Corporal and the president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 569, called the decision by the U.S. Department of Justice “a huge win for us,” though he cautioned he wasn’t quite sure how it would affect negotiations between the city and the union.
With some prodding from Rhode Island Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, the DOJ and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder relented in their initial opposition to allowing municipalities like East Providence and North Providence to use their portions of the Google money to plug budgetary shortfalls.
East Providence and North Providence both were slated to have access to $60 million from the $500 million case, which found Google inappropriately advertised the sale of Canadian prescription drugs on its web portal.
A condition to the agreement between the federal governments and municipalities at the time of the settlement was for the money to be used for law enforcement purposes only. However, politicians and administrators at the state and local level several months ago began to lobby for the money to be used to fill the massive unfunded police pension liabilities in both East Providence and North Providence.
They prevailed Friday, the decision by the DOJ authorizing East Providence $49 million. But again, the city will receive the money with the sole intent to prop up its sagging police pension. The money is not intended for the general fund of either municipality.
“I don’t know how it’s going to affect negotiations. We’ve tried to keep the Google money separate because we didn’t know how that would turn out,” Mr. Feeney said. “We’ve been talking all along. We’ve never specifically discussed what it would do for us, but it’s definitely a big part of it.”
The police officers’ contract with the city ended in November of 2012. The union signed a letter of intent to work under existing policies while a new contract was being framed. Local 569 and the East Providence Budget Commission have pretty much been in constant talks since the summer of last year, doing so as requests to use the Google money were being similarly discussed in Washington, D.C.
Now that the latter discussions proved successful, it’s possible one major hurdle in negotiations between Commission representative attorney Joseph Whalen and Local 569 has been cleared.
“We understand the city is committed to fully funding the ARC (Annual Retirement Contribution), but we don’t know what the Google money will do for us in terms of the negotiations,” Mr. Feeney said.
He continued, “They’re (the city) asking for quite a lot of money from us. We’re still trying to figure out what numbers the city needs to have and what we can accept. We’re at our budgeted strength, but we’re still short quite a few guys. Like I said, we’re at our budgeted strength, which is 92 (officers). But to run the department properly we need to be closer to 100, so it’s tough to do.”
Mr. Feeney did not want to quantify the current state of negotiations. They’re not at a stalemate, he said, but they also haven’t been fruitful either.
“It’s tough to characterize. We’re trying to negotiate in good faith. Hopefully they’ll go better now,” he added. “It seems like the city has resolved some of the issues with the other unions. So hopefully they’ll focus more on us.”
If negotiations stall to a point, both sides can agree to enter binding arbitration. While not taking such a move off the table, Mr. Feeney said the union wants to reach a negotiated settlement.
“We do want to cut a deal,” Mr. Feeney added. “Our contract was up in November. We signed a Letter of Intent to continue negotiations. It’s been frustrating, but we want to get this done.
“It’s been tough, but this decision with the Google money definitely put a smile on our faces. I just hope now we can work out a deal and get this over with.”