Wednesday, March 10, 2004

About those Crossing Guards in Warwick

I was so angered by the Crossing Guard contract negotiated between Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian and said Guards, that I wrote an email to the Mayor. He replied and I re-replied. See below for the full dialogue.

My initial email:

"Mayor Avedisian,

As a taxpaying citizen of Warwick, and a registered Republican who voted for you, I feel compelled to voice my disappointment regarding the recent School Crossing Guard contract. While the dollar amount may be a relative pittance in the overall city budget, this contract exemplifies everything that is wrong with contract negotiations between the city and a union. I realize that money may have been saved in the long run because a legal battle, similar to that in Cranston, may have been avoided. Nonetheless, to be held hostage by a union because of the threat of a lawsuit is not a display of strong leadership. I do not mean to belittle those who work as crossing guards, but the job cannot seriously be classified as a skilled profession. As such, to pay them, including benefits, the equivalent of $128 per hour is an egregious example of fidicuary irresponsibility. It also shows irresponsible use of the taxpayer's money for the city to pay into the legal defense fund of the union as well as to allow the accumulation and cashing out of sick days.

The days of public employees receiving markedly better benefits packages than the taxpayers who foot the bill should be over. I understand the purpose of incentives, but these are simply ridiculous perks. It seems as if the union did little or no comprimising and the city seems to have just been happy to have saved a pittance over the three year span of the contract. It simply isn't enough. This kind of contract should be put out to bid. I cannot help but think that a private contractor could operate for at least half the cost to the city and still make a tidy profit. At some point, negotiations such as these need to be approached with the interests of the taxpayers in mind over those of public union employees. Regardless of threats of lawsuits or feel-good mantras about the value of these union employees as community members, it is still the taxpayers money. It is my sincere hope that you and the city approach future negotiations with the idea of better utilizing the public's money. If you lead in the fight against irresponsible fiscal policy, Mr. Mayor, others, including myself, will follow."

The Mayor's Reply:

"Dear Mr. Comtois:

I share your frustration regarding the Crossing Guards. I, too, believe that, in some respects, they are overpaid for what they do. However, they do perform a valuable service for the citizens of this City by protecting the lives of our children on their way to school.

As all of us are aware, the cost of living is increasing all the time. All employees and retirees can feel the pinch that rising prices can cause. But most people, including social security recipients, receive modest annual increases in income. It is the same with the Crossing Guards. Therefore, in order to both protect both the interests of taxpayers like you, as well as the concerns of the Crossing Guards, the City instituted what I consider to be a win/win solution.

We offered the Crossing Guards a slight cost of living increase and in exchange we decided to abolish five positions. The combination of these layoffs, coupled with some other concessions we got from them during contract negotiations, will result in a net savings to the City of over $259,000 over the next three years. This is a considerable savings to the taxpayers of the City and is a far better deal than if we had just not given them any increases at all. Another important portion of the contract that we implemented is a new "Management Rights" clause that will help us to contain costs by allowing us to layoff, re-organize and even privatize in the future.

I would also point out that this is the first time in the city's history that an administration has received agreement, from any union, that its members will pay toward the cost of their health care.

By the way, the Crossing Guards receive far less than $120 per hour. They receive about $40 per day and they must be available for both morning and afternoon assignments, as well as the requirement of being on-call all day in case the schools should close early due to inclement weather.

Should you have any other questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me again.

Scott Avedisian

My final reply:

"Mayor Avedesian,
Thank you for your response. I concede that this negotiation shows some progress and was a first for the city, as you mentioned. I also am heartened to hear of the "Management Rights" clause. I still find it hard to accept the benefits package that these workers receive, especially in light of my own situation as a full-time employee for a small business who has payed substantial insurance co-pays for a lesser plan for a few years. This is not mere jealousy, simply a desire to have public, government employees recognize, and be required, to live in the same world as the taxpayers. I realize that progress has been made on this front, perhaps I'm just impatient and wish that it would happen faster and to a larger degree. Nonetheless, I appreciate your response. While I may quibble with the particulars of this agreement, I still hope for your success and urge you to continue to apply a sense of fiscal responsibility to contracts in the future. Thank you for your time.

Best Regards,
Marc Comtois"

Comment: OK, perhaps my response is a little to wishy washy on second reading, but the guy did answer me so I had to throw him a bone or two. I'll continue to watch this issue and I certainly have my antenna up for future negotiations. Now that he's on record, I aim to hold him to it.

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