Firefighters contract approved by Selectboard (4/9/09)

Union members get 3 percent raises

April 9, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The Selectboard on Monday approved a first-ever contract for unionized Williston firefighters that provides 3 percent annual cost of living pay increases despite concerns that taxpayers may resent raises for public employees during the economic meltdown.

The three-year agreement was OK’d by the board following a brief, closed-door session, said Town Manager Rick McGuire. The vote was 4-0 in favor of the contract, with board member Ted Kenney absent.

Talks had dragged on for more than a year as negotiators on both sides created an agreement from scratch. Monday’s discussion was the third time over the last several weeks that the Selectboard had discussed the proposed agreement, which had already been ratified by the union.

But the agreement comes with a wrinkle. In a non-binding provision, the board is asking firefighters to reopen wage discussions in the third year of the contract.

Both town and union officials said the provision was added in recognition of the severe recession, which has led to layoffs and pay freezes in both the private and public sectors.

Matthew Vinci, who participated in the negotiations as president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont, said that was one of a number of concessions that were driven by economic considerations. For example, he said firefighters agreed to fewer promotional opportunities and to pay for cleaning their own uniforms. And he noted retirement pay is not as generous as in other Vermont towns.

“We acknowledged that everyone is going through tough times throughout the process,” he said. “I think this is a very fair, very reasonable collective bargaining agreement.”

Selectboard member Chris Roy said refusing to ratify the contract could have been even more costly as the town racked up additional attorney’s fees during the ensuing fact-finding process. Because there are only four people in the union, scaled-back raises would have saved a relatively small amount of money.

“We didn’t think we had the luxury of spending more money to make a point in the current economy,” he said. “If we had 50 members in the union, you would probably have seen a different result.”

The 3 percent annual raises are retroactive to July 1, 2008. The back pay will cost the town approximately $6,000, McGuire said.

Firefighters, like all other town employees, are also eligible for “step” increases, pay hikes based on longevity. Those can boost pay by about another 2 percent. Unlike non-unionized town employees, firefighters are not eligible for merit raises.

Benefits are similar to what other town employees receive and remain the same as what firefighters enjoyed before the contract was settled, McGuire said. Firefighters pay 10 percent of their health insurance, a cost capped at no more than 2 percent of an employee’s pay.

The new pay scale for firefighters is $34,058 to $49,616 a year, according to McGuire. The fire captain will be paid between $41,138 to $59,931. The contract allows the current captain, Tim Gerry, to move up within that pay range.

The raises apply to Williston’s full-time firefighters. The town also employs a contingent of on-call firefighters who are paid by the hour.

The new contract brings closure to negotiations that began in January 2008. Firefighters voted to unionize the previous fall.

“It feels good,” said Ryan Prouty, one of the town’s four full-time, unionized firefighters. “We’re glad to get a contract settled that benefits both us and the town.”