PAWTUCKET — The issue of some Fire Department employees continuing to take home city vehicles despite the overturning of an arbitrator's ruling has fueled a small stand-off between the mayor and the City Council.
Last month, a judge ruled that the city could vacate a previous arbitration award and fall back on a city ordinance that allowed take-home vehicle use only to employees in specified positions. This ruling affects Fire Department employees and their vehicles (originally eight, now down to four) who are not on the list approved for take-home use but who have been continuing the practice since successfully grieving the the matter as a contract issue last year.
After the judge overturned the arbitrator's decision, Mayor Donald Grebien said that he would not take immediate action to revoke these vehicles, since he was embarking next month on a city-wide inventory assessment of all municipal vehicles. He said he wanted to wait to act until the assessment, planned for mid-February, was completed and further discussions were held on the topic of who really needed around the clock access to a vehicle.
The mayor's comments about waiting for the assessment did not sit well with City Council President David Moran, who stated publicly that he thought the take-home privileges should be immediately revoked from the Fire Department personnel while the assessment is being done. Moran cited the findings of an ad hoc committee under the previous City Council that had studied the issue of who should and should not have an overnight vehicle and had developed the ordinance detailing the list of job positions approved for take-home privileges. Any employee not on that list was supposed to petition the City Council for this privilege through their department head.
Moran's comments prompted Grebien to send a letter to the council on Wednesday, saying that while he doesn't disagree that the city has the clear legal authority to immediately end the prior take-home privileges for these vehicles, he would prefer to wait until the vehicle assessment is complete.
The mayor pointed out that the council had approved an amendment to the ordinance, based on a policy developed by his administration, requiring a percentage contribution of $100 a month to cover the average cost of fuel, insurance, maintenance and repair costs for users of take-home vehicles. He said the $100 a month fee has replaced a prior decade-long policy of unlimited use of allowable take-home vehicles and was instituted “to the benefit of our taxpayers.”
Grebien said it is his preference to conduct the vehicle assessment, which includes all police, fire, emergency, Public Works and other city-owned vehicles on a wholesale and not piecemeal basis. The survey will assess the vehicles' condition as well as cost versus necessity, and include the installation of a bar-code inside each vehicle that contains identifying information. He told the council that if members want the immediate focus to be on the fire vehicles only, they should so inform him.
On Wednesday, the topic appeared to still be a hot one, with a majority of the council calling for the mayor to immediately revoke the take-home privileges for the remaining Fire Department vehicles. Referring to Grebien's letter, Councilor John Barry said he had “no problem with doing a survey,” but thinks any return of privileges should be done retroactively. He said that since the arbitrator's ruling was overturned, he considers the decision to be done. “I would like to see those vehicles taken away,” he stated.
Moran agreed, saying that the list of vehicles approved to be taken home were part of a detailed study done by the previous ad hoc committee. He, too, stated that he thought the vehicles should be taken back now rather than waiting for the study, and Councilor Thomas Hodge concurred.
Councilor James Chadwick questioned how the $100 stipend being paid by employees who use the take-home vehicles factored in to the decision to now revoke them from the Fire personnel. However, he, too voted with his fellow councilors in a 7 to 0 decision to request that the mayor take back these vehicles immediately.
When contacted on Thursday, Fire Chief William Sisson said that while the original grievance involved eight employees with vehicles, there are only three currently taking city cars home who are not covered under the specified list allowing for this use.
Sisson said the ordinance approved by the council allows for the fire chief, two assistant fire chiefs and a “pool vehicle” for fire prevention officers, which accounts for the employees currently taking home vehicles after hours. Beyond that, he said two assistant fire marshals and one training and safety officer have been using the vehicles. Another vehicle that had been taken home by an employee is back to being garaged on city property due to this employee having to be out for an extended period, he added.
Sisson said that all of the Fire Department personnel using the vehicles, himself included, have been paying the $100 a month stipend as required. He also defended the take-home privileges of the employees who have vehicles now, saying that they often have to respond on short notice to fire scenes, problems with fire-alarm boxes and alarm systems, hazardous material spills and numerous other situations where time is of the essence.
In other matters, the council on Wednesday voted 7 to 0 to send a communication to the School Superintendent, members of the School Committee and other pertinent school officials in regard to a recent request from the teachers' union that family health benefits be extended to “domestic partners” of teachers. The letter would inform school officials that the council would have final approval over any such addition to the teachers' contract.
Moran said he had read in local newspapers about the Pawtucket Teachers Alliance seeking to add a “memorandum of understanding” to their contract to include such health benefits. He said that while the cost and details of the proposal are not yet known, he believes the council would have to ratify any such change in the contract according to the Charter amendment that was approved last fall giving the council final say over school contracts.