I-Team: Big bonuses for staying put

State workers in cities and towns are cashing in on bonuses.

If you ride in a fire truck or police the streets in a cruiser, you likely get a longevity bonus every year.

It's added pay on top of a salary, and depending what you do for work or which union represents you, that amount varies across the board.

Trades people are paid longevity, as are housekeepers and some mayoral aides. The more time on the job, the more longevity pay you collect.

"Longevity is normally hidden because you don't see it. It's not what you say when you ask how much you get paid," said John Simmons, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

The I-Team peeled back the pages, looking at the numbers in Providence, Warwick and Cranston.

The payouts can add up. In 2013, $6.1 million was paid out in longevity bonuses in Providence, $3.9 million was paid in Warwick, and $2.5 million was paid to workers in Cranston. Again, these are bonuses on top of salary for time served.

Larry Girouard, president of Rhode Island Taxpayers, said he hasn't seen longevity in the private sector.

"For the most part when we got bonuses in the private sector, it was due to performance," Girouard said.

Longevity has lived in city and state budgets for decades, going as far back as the 1940s.

"It was done to suppress one's wages, get them at a cheaper rate. Our preference would be to pay someone what they deserve the day they come in and not wait 25 years to come close to what they deserve," said J. Michael Downey, president of Council 94, an AFSCME-AFL-CIO union that represents more than 10,000 workers in Rhode Island.

In a city records search, the I-Team found big dollars going to those at the top of the food chain.

Cranston Police Chief Marco Palombo got a check for $14,237 last year. His salary is $127,437 a year. Providence's top cop, Hugh Clements, was paid $14,339 in a bonus on top of his $133,120 a year salary. And in Warwick, Fire Chief Edmund Armstrong, was paid a hefty $15,281 bonus. He makes $107,410 each year.

"The old line of the state and local employees are underpaid versus the private sector, probably doesn't exist anymore," Simmons said.

Providence firefighter union president, Paul Doughty, compared the chiefs to CEOs of private businesses.

"I think if you looked at any comparable business that had a $60 million or $70 million budget, I think you that you'll find those salaries are commensurate with the responsibilities that they've undertaken. I think it's important to look at the context and it's become part of the total compensation package. Whether we make longevity smaller and make the base larger or vice versa, it's something we're not opposed to discussing," Doughty said.

Rhode Island state workers had their longevity pay frozen in 2012. The percentage used to be up to 20 percent after 25 years of service. Vermont has no longevity pay for state workers and Massachusetts pays lump sums of 1.5 percent at 10 years, up to 4.5 percent for 25 years of service.

As a comparison, the I-Team looked at Fall River. With a population of about 89,000 residents, it's slightly larger than Cranston.

Fall River's police chief earned nearly the same base pay as his counterpart in Cranston, although his longevity was drastically lower, at $1,000 yearly compared to $14,237 in Cranston.