PARIS — Cuts in the Fire Department budget have resulted in layoffs for the town’s 18 per diem firefighters who will lose their jobs at the end of September and a Teamsters Local 340 official, who is negotiating on behalf of the per diems, is not happy about it.
Town Manager Vic Hodgkins, in an Aug. 30 letter to each per diem firefighter, wrote that the layoffs were the result of voters’ decision at the June 17 town meeting to cut the Fire Department budget by $145,629.
The town is in the process of returning to an all-volunteer Fire Department.
“In order to continue to provide basic fire services for the remainder of the fiscal year with the limited resources budgeted for that purpose, the town has determined that it must lay off its per-diem fire force,” Hodgkins wrote. “We regret that our financial exigencies require this step to be taken.”
Board of Selectmen Chairman Scott Buffington, who seconded Budget Committee Chairman Rick Little’s Fire Department motion at town meeting, noted the funding reduction requires officials to reorganize the way the Fire Department is run. In his motion, Little wanted to nix the per diems, go back to an all-volunteer Fire Department and to cut the fire chief’s salary from $40,000 to a $5,000 stipend, plus hourly wages.
“Forward thinking on the part of the taxpayer allowed for funding for a three-month transition period,” Buffington said. “This transition period was the most responsible way to still provide excellent coverage while respecting the wishes of the taxpayers from town meeting.”
Teamsters Local 340 Treasurer-Secretary Lorne Smith, who is the bargaining agent for the per diems, contends the per diem program is still intact.
“The Per Diem Program is still alive and was not cut. The Budget was cut,” he wrote in an email to the Advertiser Democrat. “The citizens are saying they don’t want the cuts to come from Per Diems. … Scott [Buffington] is ignoring this.”
The town and Teamsters were supposed to have a negotiating session regarding the per diems on Monday, Sept. 18. Smith said the town canceled the session and instead filed for mediation with the Maine Labor Relations Board concerning the Fire Department. He noted the Teamsters have not been officially notified by the town of the layoffs.
“I will be sending Paris a letter stating that we maintain the right to bargain over any changes to the Department and I will be requesting any and all payments made to any personnel working for Paris Fire that work still belongs to the Teamsters bargaining unit,” Smith wrote. “The Town can’t lay them off and then replace them with one of their handpicked individuals. Scott [Buffington] and company believe they can just ignore the Union and do as they wish, that is not the case.”
Buffington previously said the transition back to a volunteer Fire Department is separate from the union negotiations with the per diems.
The layoffs become effective Sept. 30, according to the Hodgkins’ letter. He advised the per diems to turn in all of their town-owned or town-issued equipment, including keys to the Fire Station, at the completion of their last scheduled shift.
“All currently scheduled per-diem shifts for the month of September 2017 through September 30, 2017, will be honored,” he wrote. “If you are also a ‘call’ member of the department (or employed in any other town position), your employment in those capacities is not affected by this layoff.”
He also thanked them.
“The town of Paris thanks all the per diems for their service to the town these many years and looks forward to the day that our budget may allow for their return,” Hodgkins said late last week.
Smith noted the three complaints he has filed against the town with the Maine Labor Relations Board – two prohibitive practice complaints and one bad faith negotiating complaint. Prehearings regarding the complaints are being scheduled for this month, he said.
“I would add we are going after any lost wages or damages that the Per Diems have suffered because of this,” Smith said.
At the Monday, Aug. 28 selectboard meeting, Buffington recognized the 16 volunteer firefighters of the department, some of whom will be trained at an upcoming fire academy on Thursday, Oct. 5.
Deputy Fire Chief Jon Longley, who will become fire chief after the transition is complete and Fire Chief Scott Hunter leaves, said last week misinformation was being spread about the issue.
“I personally encourage and welcome any current Paris firefighter on the roster who wishes to remain a Paris firefighter to stay with our organization,” he said. “However, anyone wishing to pursue other avenues I fully understand, given the circumstances. Quite a few of them have decided to stay on, those who are local, geographically speaking.”
Hunter hoped the volunteer model would work, but understood the uncertainty for the per diems.
“Some of them with go find looking for full-time jobs – they’ve got bills to pay,” he said. “If the program works, good for them. The odds are not in their favor.”
Not all those in Paris are happy with the Fire Department cuts, including selectboard Vice Chairman Chris Summers.
“I regret that Paris is going down this path,” he said last week. “Thank you to the per diem firefighters for their service and commitment to Paris.”
Budget Committee member Richard Merz handed in a petition recently with 245 valid signatures seeking to restore the funding to the Fire Department and to give townspeople more time to discuss the subject at a future town meeting. At last week’s meeting, selectmen voted to send the document to the town’s attorney to examine.
“That petition is legal. That petition is clear. The Town was not notified of a fundamental change to services,” Smith wrote. “Scott [Buffington] is using taxpayer money in a very costly game that he will lose in the end, I say that because the majority of Paris Residents [sic] want their Per Diem program. If this was not so he would call a Town [sic] vote. Teamsters have already made it clear if The Town [sic] votes to end the Program we will withdraw all charges and walk away.”
According to an email from Hodgkins to Smith, from June 1, 2016, until Aug. 25, 2017, the town has spent $29,235 on legal fees with Bernstein and Shur for the town’s three bargaining units, Police Department, Administration and Fire Department. Of that total, the town has spent $23,575 for the per diems unit.
“I would like to ask Scott Buffington, Why is it that you lovers of democracy, you warriors for the will of the people have no issue with using taxpayers money to hire law firms to fight against those same taxpayers? But if the citizens are Unionized [sic] or organized and fight back, You cry foul?? Because you are Hypocrites that’s why!” Smith wrote.
Buffington responded by saying he does love and respect democracy and values the sacred framework of town meeting and selectboard and town manager form of government. He noted the selectboard receives directions from taxpayers at annual town meeting and “everybody knows this,” which is why it’s important for residents to show up at town meeting and vote.
“It determines how and on what our tax dollars are spent through out the year. Its to [sic] bad Lorne Smith doesn’t understand and respect this process. He’s nothing better than a school yard bully, trying to divide our community,” Buffington wrote in an email. “His only objective here is to force the taxpayers to spend their hard earned money on something that has not been approved by the voters, to grow his teamster [sic] 340 membership, and meet his quota to support his 90k salary.”
While no further action was taken on the petition at last week’s meeting, Buffington promised the town would continue to provide “excellent fire coverage at a lower cost to the taxpayer.”
In November 2016, 17 per diems voted to form a union after selectmen pledged to cut $500,000 from the fiscal 2016 budget. Negotiations between Teamsters Local 340 and the town began in May, and have not seen smooth sailing.
Recently, a controversial flyer criticizing Buffington and Little was circulated around town and was issued by the Friends of Paris Firefighters. Smith said the Teamsters had funding in it and selectmen voted to denounce the flyers on the town’s website.