WARWICK, R.I. — Warwick Mayor Frank Picozzi on Thursday announced the city is suing the Warwick firefighters union and about 250 current or former firefighters, seeking to recoup $385,000 in “excess payments” made to firefighters for unused sick time between 2013 and 2018.
The lawsuit is based on an August 2021 report by the Marcum accounting firm, which said the city had made “excess payments” to firefighters of either $385,875 or $308,043, depending on which “payout scenario” was used.
The Marcum report states that erroneous overpayments were based on an April 2013 memorandum of agreement entered into between the union and the then-fire chief allowing accrual of sick time beyond the amount authorized by the contract then in effect.
Under law, a collective bargaining agreement cannot be altered or amended without the mayor’s signature and the City Council’s approval, but that process was not followed, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in state Superior Court in Kent County, asks the court to declare that the 2013 memorandum of agreement is “null and void” and that any payments made pursuant to it were made in error.
And the lawsuit asks the court to order the 250 union members and retirees to “make restitution for the erroneous overpayments made in reliance on the invalid 2013 (memorandum of agreement) in manner that is fair to the city taxpayers and equitable to all parties involved.”
“I want to make it clear that in no way was this the fault of our firefighters,” Picozzi said in a statement. “They are hardworking, dedicated people. This is all the result of proper procedure not being followed.”
Now that the lawsuit has been filed, the mayor said, “There will be no further comment until the case is resolved or any other significant developments occur.”
On Thursday, an attorney representing the union, Joseph F. Penza Jr., said, “No one was paid any extra money that they were not entitled to. It was a resolution of a grievance because of ambiguity in the collective bargaining agreement.”
Penza wrote to the city solicitor in November 2021, saying the April 2013 memorandum of agreement between the city and the union did not change the terms and conditions of the firefighters contract, and therefore did not require City Council approval.
Rather, the memorandum represented the resolution of a union grievance, and the fire chief is authorized to resolve grievances, he wrote. “Moreover, and most importantly from the city’s perspective, the (memorandum of understanding) did not increase any benefits that union members were entitled to,” he wrote.
“Contrary to newspaper headlines, the resolution of the grievance by way of the MOU was neither a ‘side agreement’ nor an illegal transaction that cost the city ‘hundreds of thousands of dollars,’ ” Penza wrote. “Instead, it resolved a dispute that was triggered because of the ambiguous language in (the contract). Something that is commonplace in labor relations.”
Michael C. Carreiro, president of the Warwick firefighters union, has previously said firefighters never received “excess payments” and there is no need for restitution. “There was nothing nefarious with what was going on,” he told the Globe in 2021. “There was no big scandal or scheme. It was a matter of contract interpretation.”
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 the memorandum of understanding in 2013, during former Mayor Scott Avedisian’s administration.
The union and the city entered arbitration over the issue during former Mayor Joseph J. Solomon Jr.’s administration, and in any case, the issue has now been clarified in a new contract, Carreiro has said.
Rob Cote, a Warwick resident who has been speaking out about the firefighter sick pay issue since 2016, said he is glad the city filed the lawsuit, but he said it has taken too long. He said the 250 individual firefighters involved received unused sick time payments ranging from $1,500 to $6,000 between 2013 and 2018.
Cote said he and Ken Block, the Watchdog RI founder who ran for governor as a Republican and Moderate Party leader, obtained public records that they said showed firefighters receiving excess sick time payments. He said their calculations ended up being “right on the money,” but the city spent about $225,000 to hire Marcum to reach the same conclusion. And he said the city should try to recoup that money, too.
“Ken Block and I were condemned because we brought this out,” he said. “We were told we were going after the heroes of the city of Warwick. We were vilified because we did the research to protect the residents of the city of Warwick.”
Cote said Rhode Island Supreme Court precedent allows the city to hold those who signed the memorandum of agreement accountable. “I am hopeful they go after the three people who signed this illegal deal,” he said, referring to the union leader, fire chief, and city solicitor at the time.
This story has been updated with comments from the firefighters union attorney.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.