Firefighter contract talks dragging on2/5/09

Negotiations still going after a year

Feb. 5, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

About a year has passed since Williston firefighters began negotiating their first-ever contract with the town. Despite the marathon negotiations, both sides remain hopeful that a settlement is just over the horizon.

The town’s four full-time firefighters have been working without an agreement since they voted in November 2007 to join a union, the International Association of Fire Fighters. Talks began last February.

Both sides said progress has been slow because they are creating a contract from scratch rather than updating an existing agreement.

“It’s the biggest reason it’s talking so long,” said firefighter Keith Baker. “There is a lot of time being spent making sure we get it right the first time.”

“It is a long time, but it’s a long process,” said Matthew Vinci, a South Burlington firefighter who has participated in the negotiations as president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont. “Both sides are being pretty thorough with the important issues to be discussed.”

Town Manager Rick McGuire sounded mildly exasperated as he described the difficulty of getting everyone involved with the talks in the same room at the same time. He said scheduling conflicts are one reason negotiations have dragged on so long.

“This is an incredible journey,” McGuire said.

Most recently, talks stalled when an attorney representing the town, Joseph McNeil, was hospitalized.

Neither firefighters nor McGuire would disclose specific issues still under consideration. They have agreed not to publicly discuss negotiations until an agreement is inked. But both sides say there is not any particular issue that has stalled progress.

Vinci, who has been involved with numerous negotiations around the state, said talks usually take much longer when there is a brand-new contract. Fastidiously crafting contract language and ensuring it meets legal requirements and agrees with existing employee policies, he said, is a time-consuming process.

But Vinci acknowledged that a year is an extraordinary amount of time to write a contract. Other first-time agreements he has worked on have taken six to eight months.

The fact that Williston firefighters already enjoy pay on par with other unionized firefighters may help explain the apparent lack of urgency. McGuire said their pay, $17.72 to $21.04 an hour, is based on what other firefighters make in Vermont. Virtually every other full-time firefighter in the state is unionized.

The extended talks, however, have meant the firefighters’ pay is frozen at levels set more than a year ago. They did not receive the 2.75 percent cost-of-living increase non-union employees got back in July.

But even that may not be a concern. Both McGuire and Vinci note that after extended negotiations, contracts often include a provision for retroactive pay raises.

The four full-timers comprise only a fraction of fire and rescue personnel. Not including Chief Ken Morton, there are also dozens of firefighters who work on an on-call basis. Their wages average a little more than $10 an hour.

Along with police officers, the four full-time firefighters are the only municipal employees in Williston who are unionized. Police agreed to a new three-year contract last year.

The Fire and Rescue Department’s budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 was criticized by some residents who felt the original 11 percent increase was too high in a time of economic distress. The Selectboard downsized that spending hike to 6 percent before passing the overall operating budget.

McGuire said the budget still sets aside money for firefighters’ pay raises. But he declined to say how much because it could compromise the town’s negotiating position.

Both sides are optimistic that a contract agreement will soon be struck, perhaps within the next week or two.

“We believe we’re close to an agreement,” Vinci said. “We’re hopeful both sides will ratify an agreement that is good for the employees and good for taxpayers.”