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Cranston Unions Have Upper Hand in Pension Reform

Unions opt out of pension settlement deal but can still reap its rewards if they lose their legal fight.

Cranston Unions Have Upper Hand in Pension Reform
The Cranston police and firefighters unions opted out of the pension reform deal announced by state leaders last week, which means they can look for a better deal somewhere else.

But Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung said on Tuesday that if the unions are unable to get better terms in court or through another route, they'll still reap the rewards of the pension settlement, which boils down to a 5 percent giveback to retirees in the state-run Municipal Employee Retirement System.

That means Cranston's unions have nothing to lose by trying to do better than the proposed settlement. The settlement now faces approval in the General Assembly and many mayors and town administrators, fuming over being left out the of closed-door negotiations, are pledging to ask local delegations to vote it down.

Joseph Rodio Sr., the lawyer for the two unions—the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 301 and the International Association of Firefighters Local 1363—declined comment for this story.

Fung, briefed on the settlement with other municipal leaders yesterday, said he learned of the provision that gives the Cranston unions power to continue challenging the original 2011 pension reform law without giving up the benefits in the settlement and said it was "utterly disappointing."

"Basically, they get the deal even if the pursue the case and lose," Fung said.

The city administration met with the City Council in an executive session meeting recently to talk about the settlement's impact on the city. 

Fung couldn't reveal what transpired during that meeting, nor would he say if he's had any discussions with the unions since the reform deal was announced. 

In a statement, Paul Valletta Jr., the firefighter union's president, said that Cranston's public safety unions "along with a majority of retirees, recently made changes in the city's private pension plan, resulting in $6 million in immediate savings."

"We'd appreciate the same opportunity to sit down and negotiate a fair pension for our MERS members while keeping in mind there must be an overall savings to the city," Valletta said.

City Council President John E. Lanni Jr. said the mayor is "caught between a rock and a hard place" because he wasn't included in any discussions leading up to the pension settlement. 

"All they did is present a big bill that the taxpayers of this city will have to come up with," Lanni said. "Cranston is one of the higher taxed communities and we're trying to keep the tax rate as low as possible and to get hit with this — it's kind of like a back door move and just so untransparent."

Fung said he will continue to object to the settlement and will be urging local legislators in the Cranston delegation to not support it.

"It's going to have significant impact on 2015 to the tune of about a million dollars," Fung said.

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