Police officers plan pickets to publicize contract dispute

Negotiations with town move into fact-finding phase

By Michelle Edelbaum
Observer staff

After mediated talks between town officials and police union representatives fell apart, the two sides agreed to move on to the next stage of negotiations, fact-finding. Meanwhile, officers plan informational pickets to make their case with the public.

Up until Aug. 31, the two sides met at least three times with a federal mediator in an effort to reach an agreement on the contract. Now that negations have moved on to the next phase, Detective Sgt. Bart Chamberlain, a member of the police union bargaining committee, said that the union plans to distribute information to the public within the next two weeks.

“For us it’s going to be giving more information to the public, which will include informational picketing. We’ll get to show more detailed information on salaries,” Chamberlain said.

The two sides must now agree on a fact finder, said Town Manager Rick McGuire. The union and the town will have the opportunity to share information supporting their arguments with the fact finder, who would be charged with studying the information and suggesting a settlement between the two sides. Fact-finding is not a binding process, McGuire said, and the two groups do not have to agree to the fact finder’s recommendations.

Chamberlain said Williston police are the lowest-paid in Chittenden County. McGuire said the town’s analysis show that is not true. After weeks of presenting their information to one another and attempting to negotiate salaries and benefits, among other things, the two sides will give their information to the fact finder to analyze.

“We’re confident that the fact finder will at least decide, ‘Yes, you’re living and working in this county and not making a comparable salary to other towns,’” Chamberlain said. “Hopefully, the town will at least agree to make an average of the towns.”

“The problem is, whose average?” McGuire said. “You have to make sure you’re not comparing apples to oranges. They can take numbers and make them look any way they want.”

Chamberlain said the union is asking for an additional $20,000 to $30,000 per year to be budgeted for police pay, which would translate into roughly a $1 per hour raise for each of the department’s 11 employees. He said that the town balked at what would amount to an 18 percent raise for some officers.

Chamberlain said that the pay increase was based on some officers being 18 percent underpaid. He prefers to characterize the difference as a wage adjustment. McGuire would not comment on the details of the negotiations.

“The town has and will continue to strive to pay a competitive wage,” McGuire said. Based on an annual survey he conducts and periodic surveys done by consultants, McGuire said that town employees’ wages overall are comparable to pay in neighboring towns.

Pay and health care benefits are the two big issues the union is focusing on in the contract talks, according to Chamberlain. The town wants officers to pay a portion of their health insurance, which is now entirely paid by the town.

Chamberlain said that since the department pays officers less than other Chittenden County towns, it loses officers and wastes money it invests in training.

McGuire insists that pay is not the only issue affecting the department’s retention rate. He notes that police officers cite a variety of factors when leaving the department.