WARWICK, R.I. — Warwick Mayor Frank J. Picozzi on Friday said the city “must seek reimbursement” for up to $386,000 in “excess payments” made to firefighters for unused sick time between 2013 and 2018.
The Marcum accounting firm sent the Warwick City Council a report dated Aug. 18, saying the city had made “excess payments” to firefighters of either $385,875 or $308,043, depending on which “payout scenario” was used.
“Following the release of the Marcum report and after much legal research, Mayor Picozzi has determined that in 2013 the firefighter contract was amended contrary to the proper process and was not binding,” Picozzi’s spokeswoman, Elizabeth Tufts, said in a statement Friday. “The city must seek reimbursement of any monies paid out under that amendment.”
The administration has met with the firefighters union, which disputes the mayor’s opinion and plans to present documentation to support its argument, Tufts said. The administration will review those documents with the city solicitor and decide how to proceed, she said.
Michael Carreiro, president of the Warwick firefighters union, Local 2748, said, “Obviously, we don’t agree with it.” He said the union has a report that reached a different conclusion than the Marcum report, and that will be shared with the mayor.
If the city attempts to take money back from firefighters, Carreiro said, “We will have to seek a legal opinion on it and go from there. It would become a legal matter then.”
Carriero has said the union and the city disagreed about how to interpret a previous version of the contract, and they attempted to clarify that language with a memorandum of understanding in 2013, during former Mayor Scott Avedisian’s administration.
While the city now considers that memorandum “void and unenforceable,” the union and the city entered arbitration over the issue during former Mayor Joseph J. Solomon Jr.’s administration, Carreiro said. And in any case, the issue has now been clarified in a new contract, he said.
“There was nothing nefarious with what was going on,” Carriero has said. “There was no big scandal or scheme. It was a matter of contract interpretation.”
But Rob Cote, a Warwick resident who has been speaking out about the firefighter sick pay issue since 2016, argues that the “unused sick pay scheme” represents a “completely unethical side deal” that was not done in a transparent way and that has cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“All the city has to do is garnish their wages,” Cote said Friday. “They have an itemized list for each man of how much they were overpaid, to the penny. It’s extremely well documented. So garnish their wages, and let the union sue them. When the union takes them to the court, they will lose.”
Cote noted that he unearthed a memo, written by a City Council lawyer in 2018, that says Warwick firefighters or their union should pay back up the $386,000 in “excess payments.” The lawyer, John J. Harrington, concluded that any payments or credits for additional sick leave given to firefighters based on that 2013 agreement was made in violation of the contracts in effect from 2012 to 2018.
Cote said he remains unconvinced that Picozzi will follow through and seek restitution. He predicted the mayor will say the city has changed the unused sick pay system and that the legal costs of seeking reimbursement are too high.
“It’s still nothing definitive,” Cote said, noting the Marcum report was written three months ago. “If (Picozzi) is going to move at a snail’s pace, we will never recoup the money.”
The City Council hired the YKSM accounting firm more than three years ago, and the Providence-based firm has since merged with Marcum, a national company based in New York.
Picozzi, who took office in January, has said the firm did not release the report earlier because it had not received a payment, but he believes the Aug. 18 release was prompted by a recent state Ethics Commission decision.
Marcum sent the report to the City Council one day after the Ethics Commission found probable cause to believe former Warwick City Council President Steven Merolla violated the ethics code by approving $195,000 in payments to YKSM, whose partners included his campaign treasurer and personal accountant.
On Tuesday, Merolla agreed to pay a $3,500 fine after admitting that he violated the state ethics code, which bars public officials from using their office to benefit any “business associate.”
The Marcum report explains that the city allows firefighters 20 sick days per year, and they can accumulate up to 140 unused sick days. When they retire, they can get payouts for 75 percent of the accumulated sick time, and when they reach the 140-day maximum, firefighters can get payouts “at the end of each year” for 75 percent of unused sick time, pro-rated on a monthly basis, up to 15 days.
But the contract also calls for those payments to be made “by the last day of each month,” and that’s what the department did. So, the report said, “If an employee utilizes any sick days during the year, a monthly payment scenario as used by the department, results in a payout of greater than 3/4ths of his unused year sick leave.”
The report called for the city to change “inconsistent contractual wording as it relates to monthly vs. annual payout scenarios for unused sick time benefits.” And it called for the city to change its policies and procedures “to more accurately account for this benefit.”