Paris per diem kerfuffle not an issue with town manager, fire chief

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Engine 3, Engine 4 and Ladder 1 are parked the Paris Fire Station.

PARIS — Paris Selectboard Vice Chairman Scott Buffington has refused to sign off on certain payroll warrants for the past few months because one per diem firefighter is averaging more than 50 hours a week. He recently called this practice “bad management.”

Fire Chief Scott Hunter and Town Manager Vic Hodgkins posit they are comfortable with the hours as they are is within federal labor law regulations.

The employee in question is Capt. Mark Blaquiere. While he worked more than 50 hours some weeks, he also worked less during others and averaged 49 hours per week between Dec. 1, 2016, and April 20. As an officer in the department, he is paid $12.20 per hour. During that same timeframe, Blaquiere’s gross pay was almost the same as Hunter’s, which were $12,547 and $12,575, respectively.

Buffington has brought the issue up at selectmen’s meetings – without naming the employee – most recently at the Monday, April 24 meeting. At a prior meeting, Buffington brought in a interdepartmental per diem firefighters policy that states per diems will work no more than 36 hours a week and will not accrue overtime.

At last week’s meeting, Hodgkins said emergency personnel work under different federal labor guidelines than other employees. He noted he told Hunter the employee was not to work any overtime.

“The current fire chief is comfortable with the employee working that number of hours and I support my fire chief,” Hodgkins said.

“I don’t know how any of us can sit here with a straight face and say that somebody working an average of 50 hours a week when it’s not an emergency situation is something we can stomach or put up with. It seems like poor management to me,” Buffington said.

“The way that I’m running this town, and again I am running this town, is that I let the managers manage and I manage the managers,” Hodgkins replied.

Buffington reminded Hodgkins he works at the will of the selectboard.

During a phone interview, Hunter said he was unaware of the per diem policy Buffington mentioned until he finally found it on former Fire Chief Brad Frost’s computer. Hunter said he showed it to the per diems and they told him they had never seen it.

Since Hunter arrived after Frost’s retirement in August 2016 , the 16 per diem firefighters have worked under the Fair Labor Standards Act, specifically following sections for law enforcement and protection employees. This allows per diems to have a 28 consecutive day work cycle where they’re allowed to work 212 hours, or a 53-hour work week, with no overtime, he said.

Hunter confirmed thus far, Blaquiere has not worked any over time.

“I get the whole overtime part, I get it but I can’t control what we have for fires and for how long,” Hunter said. “As far as sending somebody home in the middle of a fire, no, not if I need them.”

During an interview late last week, Buffington did worry about this exact situation.

“You have one firefighter consistently working 50 hours a week in the absence of any fire emergencies,” he said. “Why would you want to have them capped at the maximum hours they can work? What if there is a fire?”

In July 2010, a special town meeting was held where the town approved per diem firefighters to help with daytime coverage. They began working their shifts at the Western Avenue Fire Station in August of that year. Buffington suggests that when per diem firefighters was “sold to the taxpayers” the per diems weren’t supposed to work more than 36 hours.

“Another mind set is well maybe we shoud just rewrite the policy … instead of addressing the bad management decision. … And that’s no way to go about it either,” he added.

Hunter did just that, reflecting the 36 to 53 hours per diems are allowed to work per week under federal guidelines. He said he is trying to work with Buffington, but he is not sure if he will make him happy.

Both Hunter and Hodgkins noted that it’s not up to selectmen to decide employee hours, and that falls under the jurisdiction of department heads and the town manager.

“My comment to that would be … the selectboard has to approve every single check that comes out of that Town Office. You can’t tell me we don’t have a final say in what’s going on,” Buffington said.

“It’s poor management all the way through the chain of command, including the direction from the selectboard. … Currently we have a selectboard that doesn’t want to address things head on and where there is something that’s addressed, fails to take action on it. That’s my opinion.”

Buffington looked back to when he noticed all of the hours being worked by one employee.

“The timing was when Oxford was gong through its turmoil,” he said. “This is when hours stated appearing in Paris.”

In early December 2016, Blaquiere – who was a lieutenant with Oxford Fire Department – led the charge to oust then-Fire Chief Wayne Jones after an unnamed number of employees handed Jones a letter of no confidence. Blaquiere was placed on administrative leave shortly after. While Oxford officials have not confirmed Blaquiere was fired, Interim Town Manager Becky Lippincott said Blaquiere was paid no wages for 2017.

“What happened at that town line should stay there. It has no bearing on [Blaquiere’s] performance here,” Hunter said, who served as fire chief in Oxford prior to Jones. “I see the value in Mark. It just happened he has more availability than other people do because this is his only job.

“Mark is an excellent employee. He does well above and beyond what is required of him to do,” Hunter added, noting Blaquiere does what needs to be done over at the Town Office, including shoveling the roof. “We’re trying to work with the town and I think we’re doing that.”

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