Cops, town reach impasse on new contract

Dispute appears to center on health insurance

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

Contract negotiations between the town and the local police union have broken down after just a month, apparently indicating complications with the town’s desire to have officers begin to pay a portion of their health insurance costs.

The two sides declared an impasse in the negotiations this month and will now take a break from the bargaining table. They are expected to return to talks early next month with the help of a federal mediator. An impasse was declared four weeks and two days after the first negotiating session.

During previous negotiations for a police contract, talks also reached the impasse stage, which signals that negotiations have stalled and a mediator is needed to revive them. However, past negotiations took much longer to reach impasse, according to Detective Sgt. Bart Chamberlain, the union’s alternate steward. Chamberlain said talks in previous years at least progressed five to six months before stalling.

“We’re disappointed that it took just four weeks for us to realize that we’re so far apart that we’re already at an impasse,” Chamberlain said.

Town Manager Rick McGuire declined to comment on the negotiations and did not concede that they had reached an impasse unusually early, saying, “Each negotiation is different.”

The town’s police officers, sergeants and dispatchers are the only unionized employees working for the town of Williston. The union, which is called the Williston Police Officers Association, is a chapter of the Teamsters Local 597.

There has been tension in the past between town management and the members of the police union. In August of last year, union members went public with claims of “a pattern of harassment” by town management, centering on a list of grievances filed by officers for what they said were attempts to withhold rights from union members.

Salary and health care are apparently the hang-ups in the current talks.

Negotiations are held behind closed doors, but it was no secret that the town would be seeking a contract that had Williston’s police officers paying a portion of their health care costs for the first time.

During budget discussions in January, the Selectboard discussed having all non-union municipal employees begin to contribute to their health insurance costs. Currently, they do not pay anything for health care coverage. In some nearby municipalities, like Milton, Essex, South Burlington, Colchester and Shelburne, municipal employees pay small percentages of their health insurance premiums.

However, the Selectboard expressed a reluctance to force non-union employees to pay for health insurance before the union employees had a similar plan. Selectboard member Terry Macaig said it would be unfair and would encourage non-union employees to unionize so they could bargain collectively.

At the time, Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs noted the rising cost of health care had led to increased costs for employees in the private sector. Fehrs also pointed out making employees contribute to their health care costs, even a marginal amount, would produce significant savings for the town.

“In my opinion, the time has come and gone to address this,” Fehrs said.

McGuire, apparently referring to the then-upcoming negotiations with the police union, replied, “I would say the time is almost here.”

Chamberlain would not discuss any specifics of the cause for the impasse in negotiations. However, he said that police officers are willing to accept a contract that requires them to contribute to their health care premiums, as long as they receive the salary increases they say are needed to keep their pay competitive with other police departments in Chittenden County.

In a comparable scenario, the teachers of the Chittenden South Supervisory Union, which includes the Williston School District, received a substantial increase in salary four years ago but they were required to contribute more to their health insurance costs. When a new contract was agreed to last year, the teachers’ contributions to health care costs stayed level but their pay hike was lower than in the previous contract.