EAST PROVIDENCE — The lead negotiator for the East Providence Police officers union says his body remains a willing and contributing participant in ongoing contract negotiations with the Budget Commission, despite what appearances may lead many to believe.
International Brotherhood of Police Officers (IBPO) Local 569 president Kevin Feeney, during a weekend phone conversation, said his union has made “significant offers,” but Commission negotiator Joseph Whelan and the state overseers as a group haven’t always been receptive.
“We’ve definitely made concessions. There are concessions on the table,” said Mr. Feeney, a corporal in the EPPD Detectives Division and two-decade plus veteran of the force. “We’ve made significant offers, but they (Budget Commission) haven’t always been happy with them.”
Mr. Feeney said the union is willing to negotiate all aspects of its contract, including healthcare, pensions, staffing, vacations, etc.
Local 569 members were less than enthralled with the perception Mr. Whelan left at the conclusion of the Commission’s most recent meeting, Feb. 28, when he briefly talked in the open session about the status of his negotiations with the union.
Mr. Whelan, asked by Commission member Michael O’Keefe, said one of the remaining sticking points between the sides was the police OPEB (Other Post-Employment Benefits). The Providence-based attorney explained cops can retire as early as 42-years-old and receive full family health insurance until the age of 65 at no cost to them, 100-percent paid for by the city.
Mr. Feeney, who said healthcare has been the “elephant in the room” throughout negotiations, countered by saying Local 569 is willing to change the start date for police retirees to collect insurance in retirement to the age of 50, regardless if an officer steps away earlier once he or she has 20 years on the job. On the same subject, Mr. Feeney said cops are willing to have new hires be required to work a minimum of 25 years instead of 20 before they can retire with full benefits.
In addition, the union president said police have been open to begin paying into a retirement account, which would be run by the city, while still working. Mr. Feeney also said his members are still willing to participate in a HSA (health savings account) plan similar to the one East Providence Firefighters currently utilize.
He said Local 569 first broached the latter topic some two years, but were rebuffed by the then City Council and more recently by the Commission as well. The union is of the belief the city could see upwards of 20-percent savings if police were part of a HSA plan.
“On the OPEB and several other things we have offered significant changes,” Mr. Feeney said, adding all told the concessions by the union would save the city several hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The union chief stressed the East Providence Police Department, as a whole, continues to be a source of pride for the city and a revenue producing one at that.
Mr. Feeney pointed to the recent decision by the U.S. Department of Justice, which allowed East Providence to use over $50 million in asset forfeiture money earned by the department from its work on the Google drug case towards mitigating the city’s huge unfunded pension liability.
The money significantly reduces East Providence’s required annual retirement contribution (ARC) from upwards of $8 million to likely under $6 million. The city, though, remains some $50 million in arrears to it overall pension obligation.
“The situation we’re in is not the fault of the employees. It’s entirely the fault of the city. The city hasn’t fully funded the ARC for several years. When they needed the money to use in other ways, they did it. We as employees don’t have that option,” Mr. Feeney said.
The Budget Commission has penciled in full ARC payments for its fiscal year plans over the next several years. Local 569 would recommend it to continue to pay into the pension fund at close to the $8 million number rather than the under $6 million since the Google decision.
“They should continue to put most of that money towards the ARC, at least for the next few years. That would be a benefit to all of us,” Mr. Feeney added.
In addition, the union president mentioned how the EPPD, through such things as details, ticketing and other asset forfeitures, puts important dollars into city’s general fund and allows the department to make purchase without dipping into the city coffers.
Ultimately, Mr. Feeney said his union remains open to a wide-ranging discussion about its future work conditions.
“We’ve already made significant movement on a number of issues,” he added. “The union believes it has made a very fair offer to the city and we are waiting to hear back from them.”