PAWTUCKET — Saying they didn't appreciate the “political” tone, several City Councilors on Wednesday publicly criticized Director of Administration Antonio Pires and, indirectly, Mayor Donald Grebien, for some recent communications sent to the council.
The harshest tongue-lashing came from Councilor Thomas Hodge, who faulted a written response from Pires to a request from the council for information about the extra compensation some municipal department heads were receiving for handling double duties. At a previous meeting, Councilor Larry Tetreault had asked to know how much extra some department heads were being compensated for supervising other divisions, and the council supported his inquiry.
However, Hodge noted that while Pires had supplied an in-depth explanation of the fact that three department heads were earning an extra $200 a week in salary by performing dual roles, he had also highlighted in his letter to the council that Tetreault had, until just recently, accepted an annual “buyback” compensation for not taking the medical/dental plan he is entitled to as an elected official. He said this buyback had cost taxpayers more than $5,600 over the last three and a half fiscal years, and wrote that “while such decisions are clearly personal ones, they just as clearly have symbolic, cumulative and significant economic consequences for our taxpayers.”
Saying that “when you attack one of us, you attack all of us,” Hodge said he was offended and “stunned” by Pires' including information about Tetreault's buyback acceptance in his public response to the council. He said the acceptance of the medical/dental coverage waivers was “a personal choice” of Tetreault and was not at all pertinent to the questions about the department heads' compensation. “There is no place for this kind of politics at this time,” said Hodge. He added that he chooses to take the city-provided medical/dental coverage benefit “because I need it.”
Hodge also pointed to some other letters to the council from Pires and from the Grebien administration regarding the council's inquiries into the trash program and some other recent city hirings that he said contained a hint of intimidation. Hodge said he had found some of the these communications “very disturbing” and said, “I don't want to see this tenor” in letters to the council.
City Council President David Moran also said he was displeased by Pires' inclusion of the information about Tetreault in his response, and felt like this had been “a dig” at the councilor's inquiry about the department heads' salaries. “I encourage all council members to ask any questions they want, and I request that the administration just keep the responses to the questions asked,” Moran said. He reminded Pires, who was in attendance, that the communication situation between the council and the administration was “a two-way street.”
For his part, Tetreault simply thanked Pires for providing the answers to his inquiry. However, he also said he wished to submit his own detailed response to Pires' explanation of the department heads' compensation and gave it to City Clerk Richard Goldstein to file.
In a copy of the letter to Pires obtained by The Times, Tetreault raised further questions about the department heads' compensation and reported savings from their handling of dual roles, and suggests that the administration's actions have been less than upfront with the council.
Tetreault said that Pires' reporting of an annual salary of $83,246 for a city engineer as a savings is “puzzling” since there was no money budgeted for the position in the past three fiscal years. He also said there were no payments made to anyone in FY 2011 or FY 2012 for “out of grade” assignments so the money being paid to the DPW director to handle these duties is actually an additional cost to the city.
Tetreault also noted that the City Council did approve the mayor's request for a personnel director and an information technology director in the FY 2013 budget and said the $213,880 for the two salaries was factored into the final tax rate increase which the mayor requested and which was approved by the council. He said, however, that it was now”very apparent” that the administration had asked the council to approve monies for the personnel director position for FY 2013 even though the administration knew it was not going to fill that position for the entire budget period, if at all.
“To put monies into a budget that will knowingly not be spent and to later claim cost savings for not spending these budgeted monies is not what I would categorize as transparent,” wrote Tetreault. “To claim savings for a position that hasn't been on the city payroll for over three years and which was not even in the approved city budget for FY 2013 is also not transparent.”
Tetreault also wrote Pires that he was amused by his “keen interest” with the fact that he received payments in lieu of health insurance during his first three and a half years on the council. However, he said Pires “failed to fully point out” that he voluntarily stopped receiving these monies when the administration asked the council to approve an ordinance that would eliminate this medical buyback practice.
“I wonder if you feel that I should also be ashamed for having received a stipend when I was a member of the Zoning Board since those payments must have also caused significant economic consequences for our taxpayers,” Tetreault added.
The issue of medical/dental buybacks and proper communication came up later in Wednesday night's meeting, when several councilors leveled some further criticism on Pires and the administration over its request for money in the budget that is now needed to cover this expense and the way this matter was explained to the council. This year's budget does not include any funding to pay the city employees who chose to receive a waiver in lieu of taking their medical/dental benefits.
Pires, who joked that he had been “admonished enough already” by the council, explained that the administration had originally hoped to have the medical/dental buyback provision eliminated under new collective bargaining agreements. When this didn't happen, the administration then asked the council to approve an ordinance to eliminate the program, which it failed to do. Pires said that because there should have been more notice to employees about the administration's desire to eliminate the buybacks, and because the city would have likely lost any grievances filed over the matter, the only fair thing to do was to pay the employees involved this year.
In a letter to the council, Finance Director Joanna L'Heureux had requested that the council approve a transfer from the city's reserve fund of approximately $99,375 to cover the medical buybacks. An ordinance pertaining to this transfer has been referred to the Finance Committee for consideration.
However, Councilor John Barry, chairman of the Finance Committee, told Pires and L'Heureux that this money should be found through savings in the current operating budget, rather than dipping into the city's reserve fund. Councilor Mark Wildenhain agreed, saying that the reserves shouldn't be touched and noting the savings that have been realized from leaving several department head positions vacant.