Providence Mayor faces pushback over proposed police union contract

The proposed contract could become a political football as the early Democratic candidates for mayor in 2022 are forced take positions on the deal, and one likely candidate, Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune, has already signaled that she is against the proposal.

“I am glad the administration negotiated with an eye toward addressing the long-term pension liability,” LaFortune said this week. “However, I can’t support a contract that misses a crucial opportunity to reform the police department to improve police-community relations and ensure accountability for our police force.”

LaFortune and City Council President Sabina Matos are the two mayoral hopefuls who will actually vote on the proposed contract. Two other potential candidates who have begun raising money for their campaigns, Gonzalo Cuervo and Brett Smiley, do not have a vote.

Whoever does win the mayoral race next year would inherit the final six months of the police contract, which would expire June 30, 2023.

Under the terms of the tentative agreement, the officers would be guaranteed retroactive pay raises of 4.5 percent for 2019 and 2020, another 4.5 percent increase for 2021, and a 3.75 percent increase in 2022. In exchange, the officers would gradually begin increasing their pension contributions from the current level of 8.5 percent to 13.5 percent by next year.

Elorza maintains that the deal will help Providence in the long term because it will force all of the other public employee unions in the city to increase their pension contributions as well. He said the city would not have been able to win the additional pension contributions if it didn’t offer pay raises.

All of the mayoral candidates highlighted the pension contributions as a win for the city, but they all understand that being viewed as a progressive is crucial to winning a Democratic primary in liberal Providence. Still, LaFortune was the only candidate to firmly state that she is unlikely to support the agreement.

Matos, the council president, said she is “glad to see progress in addressing the pensions problems,” but she is looking forward to hearing the discussion in the City Council Finance Committee.

The committee meets Thursday, and is expected to schedule a public hearing on the contract. The union has already approved the deal.

Cuervo, who worked in the administrations of former mayors David Cicilline and Angel Taveras, said he thinks the council should do its due diligence on vetting the contract.

“Increasing pension contributions and properly compensating our men and women in uniform is important, yet a contract negotiation is an opportunity to reimagine public safety in a way that benefits everyone,” Cuervo said. “That has to be front and center.”

Smiley, who announced Wednesday that he is stepping down as the state’s director of administration to run for mayor, said, “It is critical that the city continues to embrace community policing and properly resourcing the department is an important factor to that strategy’s success.” He said Elorza and the council will have to determine whether the agreement is affordable.

“It is commendable that that the members are going to contribute more to their retirement and help address the city’s long-term pension problems, and appropriate that the city is going to address the disparity of pay between its officers and those from other police officers in Rhode Island,” Smiley said.

Labor negotiations and the city’s pension fund are two of the most significant challenges that any mayor of Providence will face.

In his six years as mayor, Elorza has at different times had protracted battles with the firefighters and teachers, and minor dust-ups with the school clerical workers’ union and the police. Last June the police officers overwhelmingly voted no confidence in Elorza for standing by a firefighter who claimed he was racially profiled by an officer.

The city’s ever-growing annual pension payments threaten to crowd out other necessary investments, and the pension system was just 22.17 percent funded as of June 30, 2020 with a net liability of $1.26 billion as of June 30. Under a settlement agreement with the unions, the city’s annual pension payment is projected to grow from $90 million this year to $136 million by 2033.

Dan McGowan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.

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