PARIS — The third time was not a charm for Paris, as Teamsters Local 340 filed a third complaint against the town as a controversial flyer criticizing Selectboard Chairman Scott Buffington and Budget Committee Chairman Rick Little circulated around town.
In November 2016, 17 of the town’s per diem firefighters voted to form a union after initial discussions began in December 2015. This was in response to the selectmen’s pledge to cut $500,000 from the fiscal 2016 budget. In May of this year, town and Teamsters officials met to begin bargaining for a contract, which has not gone smoothly and is still under negotiation.
The most recent complaint is another prohibitive practice complaint that was filed with the Maine Labor Relations Board on Tuesday, Aug. 22. It outlines town and union officials actions from May until now, including the two other complaints filed by the Teamsters.
The newest one focuses on the action at June annual town meeting where Little’s motion, which was seconded by Buffington, was to reduce the Fire Department’s budget by more than $145,000 with the intention of nixing the per diem program, going back to an all-volunteer department and reducing the fire chief’s salary to a $5,000 annual stipend plus hourly wages. It was approved 52-37 with two abstentions.
“Through the complaint, what we’re trying to prove with it is those two knew exactly what they were doing [at town meeting]. They did not advertise to the people they were going to go in and cut the per diem program,” said Lorne Smith, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 340, who is negotiating on the behalf of the per diems. “We firmly believe that Scott Buffington and Rick Little [are] union busting because that’s what they’re doing.”
Buffington and Little said they’re honoring the will of the people.
“The spirit of that meeting was very clear where the taxpayers, the townspeople, thought where that cut should come from,” Buffington said.
As for the first two complaints filed by the Teamsters, the June one was a prohibitive practice complaint regarding the alleged change in work hours for the per diems. The town challenge that and Smith said he received a ruling in favor of the Teamsters on Aug. 15 from Mark Ayotte, executive director of the Maine Labor Relations Board. This complaint will now head to a hearing before the Labor Relations Board in Augusta, though no date has been set yet.
The second complaint, a bad faith negotiations complaint, was filed in July when Smith said Town Manager Vic Hodgkins refused to answer questions about the future of the per diem program. The town also challenged this complaint, saying Smith did not give them enough time for the 10-day notice to force Paris officials back to the negotiating table.
“Due to the sensitivities of the ongoing union negotiations, I will not comment at this time,” Hodgkins said, when asked Tuesday, Aug. 22, about Fire Department issues.
The next meeting for per diem negotiations is set for Monday, Sept. 18.
Late last week, Paris residents began receiving mailed flyers criticizing Buffington and Little, which features their photos in the top corners of the flyer and their contact information at the bottom.
It partially reads, “BURNED Select Board Chairman Scott Buffington has ambushed residents with a plan to dismantle the Fire Department. No debate. No public comment. No clue.”
Buffington estimated over the weekend he received 30 phone calls, plus a dozen or so emails on the matter. Little reported he received a number of phone calls, which he said were surprisingly in support of him. Both men disagree with the statements made in the flyer, saying they are untrue.
“I don’t take the cowardly approach of publicly shaming somebody. There was debate, there was public comments. There were over 100 people there [at town meeting],” Buffington said. “The townspeople voted after a very healthy debate to reduce funding to the Fire Department by $145,000.”
“It upset a lot more people than me,” Little said. “If they’re going to put something out, it would be nice to put the truth out.”
The flyer says it was sent by the Friends of Paris Firefighters, which gives the Fire Station’s address of 137 Western Avenue.
Hodgkins commented on the use of a town address on the flyer via email.
“It is my understanding that we do not have any direct policy concerning the use of town addresses on political flyers, however … our Personnel Policy states in part that ’employees are prohibited from being in any way concerned with soliciting or receiving subscriptions, contributions, or political service from any person for any political purpose pertaining to town government; or engaging in political activities in the work place.’”
Smith said the Teamsters had some funding in the flyer.
“The Friends of Paris Firefighters are obviously the people who are behind the flyer,” he said. “The people who wanted to put out the flyer are terrified of these guys [Buffington and Little].”
Buffington responded, “This is outside money that is trying to coerce and divide us and dictate how we spend our tax dollars.”
He added the flyer’s statement that the volunteer department will create longer response times isn’t necessarily true, nor is the statement that property taxes will not go down. He noted “a budget is ultimately a reflection of your tax bill,” so as long a property valuation or other factors have not increased, there should be a decrease in taxes.
Buffington took issue with the statement that home insurance rates could rise since the town’s strong ISO rating is a 4 and was established several years ago when it was still a volunteer department.
“It is just another misconception they used to scare people with inaccurate information,” he said. “I am sorry Lorne [Smith] doesn’t like the outcome of that [town meeting]. He is not a resident of Paris, he does not have a say in how we spend our tax dollars.
“How is that not bad faith negotiating?” Buffington asked about sending out the flyer. “You are distributing lies to the community you claim to help. That’s the biggest lie – you’re not [helping].”
Buffington said, “The transition back to a volunteer Fire Department, to me, is a separate thing from the union negotiations with our per diem firefighters.”
More than 10 volunteer applications have been submitted, which he called “hugely exciting.”
“You hear about the volunteer shortage in all of these towns, but we’ve been able to market where we’ve added several volunteer firefighters,” he said, adding a few more will be trained. “It is unfortunate a group like this is coming around to undo this hard work.”
He added the more than $145,000 cut to the Fire Department’s budget leaves $239,011, which allows roughly 13 weeks of per diem coverage. This brings to the town up to around Sunday, Oct. 1, which is why he released the tentative plan for the future of the Fire Department at last week’s selectmen’s meeting.
- current Fire Chief Scott Hunter will remain on during the transition.
- Deputy Fire Chief Jon Longley will become fire chief and receive a $5,000 a year stipend, plus hourly wages, which has been done in the past. (Hunter is earning $26.60 per hour/30 hours per week.)
- establishing the types of calls the department will respond to, which include fire calls, automobile accidents, vehicle extrication, technical rescue and mutual aid calls.
- hiring a daytime working firefighter, who will man the Fire Station Monday through Friday and will be able to conduct routine equipment checks, issue burn permits, give tours of the Fire Department and respond to calls.
“The biggest change really would be responding as first responders on EMS calls,” Buffington said, adding the town will still provide mutual aid to PACE when they request it. “Certainly we will go, [we] just need to be requested for assistance first.”
At their last meeting on Aug. 14, Town Clerk Liz Knox gave selectmen a copy of the certified petition from Budget Committee member Richard Merz. There were 275 signatures and Knox validated 245 of them.
The petition requests a town meeting or secret ballot referendum to restore the $145,629 that was cut from the Fire Department budget.
Selectmen tabled it at the Aug. 14 meeting since they received it that night and will address it at their upcoming Monday, Aug. 28, at 6:30 p.m. at the Town Office, 33 Market Square.