WESTERLY — The union that represents the officers of the Westerly Police Department is performing a final review of a proposed three-year contract. The agreement was ratified by the Town Council on Monday by a 6-0-1 vote and union members previously gave a thumbs up to a draft version.
The proposed deal, which would take effect retroactively to July 1 and expire on June 30, 2022, would give the officers a 2.5% pay raise in each of the three years.
Give and take by both sides led to changes to benefits for current and retired union members. The union agreed to give up a maximum annual $6,000 contribution from the town toward the cost of health care benefits for retired officers. The change affects officers hired after July 1.
The $6,000 contribution was a point of controversy after the previous contract was signed in October 2016. Critics of the deal said former Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy had mistakenly agreed to the contribution and in so doing doubled the value of health care benefits provided to retired union members. Kennedy, at the time, said the critics were misreading the contract.
Town Council President Christopher Duhamel, when asked to comment on the new contract, pointed to the removal of the $6,000 contribution as a significant achievement for the town's negotiating team — Human Resources Director Nancy Markey, Town Manager J. Mark Rooney, and Police Chief Shawn Lacey. Markey agreed with Duhamel.
"The post-retirement benefit was really important to the town. That won't be realized for 20 years but at least we've contained the post-retirement benefit to only those people who were employed prior to July 1," Markey said.
In the meantime, officers retiring after 20 years and covered by the previous contract provision can be reimbursed for up to $500 per month ($6,000 annually) toward the cost of purchasing additional insurance beyond the member-only coverage to which they are entitled (and for which they were paying 17.5 percent of the premium).
Furthermore, the contribution active duty union members will make toward the cost of health and dental insurance coverage was reduced to 12% for all members. Previously, 19 members were paying 17.5% of the cost, and 20 members were paying 22.5%. In turn, the town's contribution to members' health savings accounts was reduced to 50% from 100% for a projected savings of $127,500 over the three-year period.
"One of the things that was important to the town was having equity among employees regarding benefits so instead of police getting 100 percent of the deductible we're giving them 50 percent like the managers get," Markey said during an interview Wednesday.
In other highlights, the union agreed to allow the town to stop paying a $250 match to the flexible health spending accounts of 25 members, for an $18,750 savings for the town; and the town bumped up the annual clothing allowance by $500 per employee, to a new total of $2,000.
Overall, the contract is expected to have a $602,687 impact on the town over the course of the contract, according to a financial impact analysis performed by the town and posted on its website. Duhamel said the raises are considered reasonable when compared with pay for police departments in other parts of the state. He described the contract as "a benefit to the town and it was agreeable to the force, which is a benefit to the town — to have a good relationship with the police department."
Westerly Officer Anthony Alicchio, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 503, the union that represents the town's police officers, said both sides shared the same motivations during negotiations. "Everybody is always looking for what would be fair to the taxpayers as well as to the men and women of the police department."
Clarification to language throughout the contract is expected to make things easier for both sides. "The union stepped up and changed language under management rights. It spells out very clearly what the chief must do and what he isn't required to do," Rooney said.
The contract also includes a new schedule-bidding system to replace a system that allowed senior officers to take more desirable work schedules from newer officers.
Work to improve management of the police pension will commence soon. The work will include creation of a document that sets out responsibilities and checks and balances. Historically, Rooney said, there has been minimal oversight of the pension by the town and police staff. "We're trying to give [the union] a voice and responsibility for managing the pension," he said.
Alicchio said a committee or board will be established to provide oversight of pension investments. The panel will likely include active and retired union members and representatives of the local business and financial sectors, he said.
Councilor William Aiello abstained from voting on the contract, saying he had not had enough time to read it.