Firefighters, police in contract talks

Officials mum on negotiation details

April 10, 2008

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Williston public safety employees are negotiating contracts that will set pay and benefits for the town's only unionized workers.

Talks began Monday on a revised agreement with the town's police officers. The current contract, which expires July 1, covers 13 full-time officers and two dispatchers. They are represented by Teamsters Local 597.

Negotiations with Williston's four full-time firefighters started about two months ago, said Town Manager Rick McGuire.

The firefighters, hired in 2006 to supplement a contingent of volunteer on-call firefighters and rescue workers, are negotiating their first contract. They voted in November to join the International Association of Fire Fighters.

McGuire and union representatives declined to provide specifics on the negotiations. Each side cited ground rules that forbid public comment unless talks reach an impasse.

"I really can't say anything," said Capt. Tim Gerry of the Williston Fire Department. After several negotiating sessions, Gerry said he is pleased with progress so far.

McGuire said because the firefighters' contract involves starting from scratch, the process is more difficult and time-consuming.

"There's lots and lots of issues to talk about because we're starting a whole new agreement," he said.

Gerry said talks haven't even touched on wages and benefits yet because both sides are still trying to hammer out work rules and responsibilities.

The full-time firefighters — Gerry, Keith Baker, Ryan Prouty and Sean Soper — are currently paid from $17.72 to $21.04 an hour.

If history is any guide, talks with the police union could be contentious. In 2005, negotiations reached an impasse after just a month.

Police claimed they were among the lowest-paid officers in Chittenden County and considered picketing. A mediator and a fact finder were employed to break the stalemate. A new agreement was finally struck in December 2005.

Contract talks in prior years were also contentious. And there have been other tensions, including grievances that officers claimed amounted to a pattern of harassment in 2004.

Detective Sgt. Bart Chamberlain declined to comment on what pay and benefits officers are seeking in the negotiations. He was cautiously optimistic about the prospect of reaching an agreement before the current contract expires.

"We're hopeful everything will go well," he said.

The pay scale for police ranges from $18.04 an hour to $27.64 an hour, depending on years of service and rank. Dispatchers' pay is between $16.22 and $21.40 an hour.

Duane Messier, who as business manager for Teamsters Local 597 will help negotiate the police contract, said the first order of business is to find items in the existing contract that will remain unchanged.

Although he would not talk specifics, Messier said the general goal is to ensure Williston officers' pay and benefits stack up to compensation received by officers in other Chittenden County towns.

McGuire said he will try to look out for taxpayers' pocketbooks and still be fair to employees.

"Anytime you negotiate a contract there's an effort to balance interests," he said. "You want to keep costs down. But you also want to make sure pay and benefits are competitive or you end up with problems with the organization. Either you have higher turnover or lower morale. And that has a cost to the organization, too."