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Central Falls struggles through bankruptcy

Since filing for bankruptcy Aug. 1, Central Falls has been engaged in an arduous negotiation process as city employees fight to protect the benefits included in their current contracts.

"We're making progress towards reaching an agreement about some of the things we'd like to do in the bankruptcy plan," said Robert Flanders Jr. '71, the city's appointed receiver. Flanders, a former assistant adjunct professor of public policy, was appointed in February to help handle the city's impending bankruptcy. The city's determination to avoid defaulting on its loans has put its employees' pensions and benefits in jeopardy.

When it filed for bankruptcy in August, the city feared employees would sue, Flanders said. The city convinced the teachers union, the fire department and the police department that it would be better to try "to negotiate a resolution rather than going through a long, drawn-out litigation contesting the bankruptcy filing," he said.

"We're listening to what they have to say about various cost-cutting proposals," Flanders said. For example, instead of outsourcing rescue services, the fire department could continue to provide these services but cut overtime pay.

Public Safety Strategies Group, located in Massachusetts, released a report Sept. 6 that recommends the city consider consolidating fire services with stations in nearby towns and contracting out its emergency medical service calls.

The city is "trying to preserve jobs and not go to outsourcing … because that's the best way to save money," Flanders said. Functions currently in danger of being outsourced include janitorial and sanitation services.

"The challenge is to try to come up with a plan that's workable despite the fact that we're not going to be able to provide the same level of benefits and other financial inducements that were provided in the past," Flanders said. "There's going to be more cost-sharing and the benefits are going to be curtailed."

The report also recommended that the fire department standardize shifts to prevent unnecessary overtime and cut the positions of the three battalion chiefs — which cost the city a total of $200,000 dollars a year — in favor of one public safety administrator.

Central Falls Police Chief Joseph Moran III issued a nine-page rebuttal in response to the report. In it, he expressed his concern that the report "did not include interviews, review of job descriptions or surveys." He added that the report did not cite ride-alongs with police officers or any visits to the police department as evidence for its claims.

"Normally when you do a study, you try to find out about a place before you rip it apart," Moran told The Herald.

This week, Flanders and his team are filing a five-year plan for balancing the city's budget, which includes budget cuts and general restructuring.

Flanders recently obtained an extension to continue negotiations through the end of October before a judge hears the unions' case that bankruptcy law does not give the district the right to renege on its employees' contracts.

"The next month-and-a-half is going to be the critical period for dealing with all of this," he said.

Though the negotiations with teachers are still in preliminary stages, James Parisi, field representative in Central Falls for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, said he hopes the negotiations will fit within the timeline.

"It would be important for the teachers to have an understanding of what their contract is," he said.

The city's initial focus was "trying to agree on an interim plan that would allow the teachers to work and things to proceed as normally as possible while we try to work out a longer-term arrangement," Flanders said. At the end of August, he replaced the school's negotiation team with his own group: his Chief of Staff Gayle Corrigan, David Abbott, deputy commissioner and general counsel for the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Joseph Whelan, a Providence lawyer who focuses on labor law and collective-bargaining negotiations.

"Both sides are talking — there are a lot of issues that are still outstanding but the fact that they're still at the table negotiating is a very positive thing," said Frank Flynn, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals. "You hope to get something that's fair for teachers, fair and good to the students and fair for taxpayers."

"There are a lot of language issues surrounding job transfer and reassignment and teacher evaluation" in contract negotiations, Flynn said. Teachers who have retired or resigned have not been replaced, he added.

"The teachers are looking to preserve their rights. They're looking to get a fair benefits package agreed to, and we are hoping to use the bargaining process to get programs that would help students," Parisi, the teachers' union representative, said. "We would love to see comprehensive review of curriculum." The teachers would also like to see programs like music, sexual education and gifted and talented classes added or extended.

The Central Falls school district, which receives its funding from the state, lost a lot of money in the implementation of the new funding formula, Flynn said.

"Basically, it's a state-run school entity," he said of the district.

"We have followed the budget problems of the Central Falls municipality, but have always understood our budget comes from the state government, not the local government," Parisi said. "The General Assembly has significantly reduced municipal funding in the last few years."


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