By Erin Place
PARIS—Gray skies were the backdrop Tuesday morning as Oxford County Sheriff’s deputies picketed in front of the superior courthouse in South Paris, bringing to light stalled contract negotiations with county commissioners and other points of contention they have with the sheriff’s office.
Around 8:30 a.m. at 26 Western Ave., eight deputies were joined by members of the Teamsters Local 340, including representative Ray Cote, who is heading negotiations on behalf of the deputies. Cote said the deputies have been working without a contract since Dec. 31, 2011, and the members of the sheriff’s department represented there Tuesday have gone without a pay increase for the past four years.
“These guys have a unique job. They put on a gun, a badge and a bullet proof vest and they go out and put their lives on the line,” Cote said on behalf of the county. “These guys are doing a dangerous job and they need to be compensated.”
Deputy Richard Murray, who was on the picketing line Tuesday, said he’s worked with Oxford County Sheriff’s deputies for a number of years as an officer with the Fryeburg Police Department before heading over to the county a year and a half ago. He agreed with Cote that the protest wasn’t anything personal and acknowledged how hard his colleagues work.
“It’s all about pay and a contract—good contract. … We’re not here to fight with the administration as far as the sheriff or chief [deputy],” Murray said. “A lot of people go the extra mile to get these things taken care of. They don’t have to. I’ve seen them go way above what was needed to be done.”
Bargaining between the Teamsters—who are representing the deputies—and the County Administrator Scott Cole and the three County Commissioners—Steven Merrill, David Duguay and Caldwell Jackson—began early last fall, Cote said. Both Cote and Cole were in agreement that progress had been made during the negotiations until recently, when Cole said the union walked away abruptly from the bargaining table in June.
“We’ve made a lot of progress on clarifying language on overtime allocations and promotion policies. A lot of good things have happened,” Cole said. “The money is where it hits the road. We’re on the road now.”
The union is asking for a raise of $3 per hour across the board. According to Sheriff Wayne Gallant— who said he isn’t involved with the negotiation process—his office is comprised of 19 patrolmen, four detectives, the chief deputy and himself. The sheriff had no qualms with the deputies picketing.
“I certainly sympathize with them. I certainly agree that they should have a contract, it’s gone on for a long time. … I think any bargaining unit has a right to go public and hopefully people will see and sympathize,” Gallant said. “As sheriff and for a more efficiently run agency, it would be nice if the membership had a little bit more self-esteem. I think it would be healthy for them, healthy for the agency, healthy for the county.”
He added that the picketing deputies were off duty and their activities on Tuesday did not affect law enforcement coverage in Oxford County from his department.
The crux of the negotiations stalemate is wages. The union wants the $3 across-the-board wage increase, while the county has offered a $1 increase and a 1.5 percent increase in the second and third years. Cote pointed to surrounding counties and the starting wages of deputies, saying Oxford County comes in as second lowest in the five counties examined, at $14.97 an hour. The $3 increase would bring the starting wages of deputies up to the average of the five counties and equates to roughly $2,400, Cote said.
“It would not be an undue financial burden for the county to compensate these guys and to give them their $3 an hour,” he added.
Cole called the starting wage argument a red herring, saying over the last four years, the deputies hired by the department were brought on at a starting wage of $17.84 an hour, save for the last two. They were hired within the past year and at the $14.97 an hour starting wage since they had little to no experience as police officers, he said. Average hourly wage for Oxford County Sheriff’s deputies is around $19 an hour, Cole said.
“We’ve also heard comparisons to other counties and what those deputies are being paid, but this county’s retirement package and health benefits package is more generous than any other county,” Cole said.
“We’re grateful to the county that they have decided to leave the health insurance compensation the same,” Cote said. “However, as a total compensation package, that’s only one piece.”
Deputy Murray said one of the reasons came to the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department is because the health benefits compensation and he was able to save some money because of that.
According to the county administrator, the $1 increase in wages is equivalent to more than a 5 percent raise.
“We feel at this time it’s a fair offer,” Cole said. “I’d like to see an employer in Oxford County giving five percent raises. No one’s brought that forward.”
Cote and the union have proposed to pay for the deputies’ wage increases with revenue generated from the Oxford Casino. Murray is also on board with the proposal.
“What I think people don’t understand, with the contract or any increases, that doesn’t have to be out of the pockets of the taxpayers,” he said. “We’ve given them all the tools they need as far as how they can pay for this not at the taxpayers’ expense.”
Cole said the suggestion is an oversimplification of the issue and the whole picture needs to be looked at. The revenue brought in from the casino is being used to offset property taxes across Oxford County.
“If not for the casino money, the county tax would be 10 percent higher,” he said. Cole added the county’s total tax levy stands at $5.3 million with revenues from the casino. If that money were to be allocated elsewhere, it would jump to $5.8 million.
“It’s easy for the other side to isolate wages but from the county side, the taxpayers side of the discussion, the taxpayers are paying more and more for the service of the deputies,” Cole said, adding that the county’s tax base remains stagnant and has lost value in the past five years. “The commissioners are sensitive to the request of the deputies. We certainly don’t diminish the importance of the deputies and what they do.”
Another source of contention for the deputies and union is the cancellation of the Stonegarden detail, which is federally funded and where deputies help Border Patrol monitor the border with Canada. The sheriff and county administrator said the nixing of this program—which happened at the behest of Gallant earlier this month—doesn’t have anything to do with the contract negotiations. This detail is where the deputies would earn most of their overtime pay.
“When the sheriff cancels that detail, which he did, it’s money out of the pockets of these members. That money is available … and these guys should be working the detail,” Cote said. “Lord knows they make little enough as it is.”
According to Cole, the county has $195,000 budgeted for overtime for the sheriff’s department, with roughly half of that originally anticipated for that detail.
The sheriff has been charged with canceling the detail in retaliation toward the deputies for some of the grievances that have been filed on their behalf, to which he vehemently denied.
“That’s completely absurd. That’s an inaccurate comment. There’s reasons why we’re not doing it right now, that has nothing to do with negotiations,” Gallant said, noting he didn’t agree with “attack[ing] the sheriff because they’re not getting their way.”
“At this time, the sheriff, for unrelated reasons, believes Stonegarden is not in the best interest Oxford County,” Cole added.
Gallant declined to comment further about the cancellation of Stonegarden.
In addition to the axing of Stonegarden, the deputies are upset about the discontinuation of call sharing with Maine State Police. Cote said there’s also been eight grievances filed, most of them have to do with work conditions and one has to do with suspension, but declined to go into further detail.
Both sides are hopeful that some sort of middle ground can be reached and negotiations can continue in the near future.
“We look forward to sitting down again with the deputies and their representative the Teamsters and talking these items through,” Cole said. “It’s hard to have a conversation when the other party’s not in the room.”
“We’re here to demonstrate our desire to have the county to step up to the plate and compensate these guys, and we’re not asking for anything the county doesn’t have,” Cote said. “Negotiations are done on the basis of mutual respect and there’s always a middle ground that can be found. And we’re certainly willing to meet them in the middle somewhere.”
Cote said depending on what happens next with the county, the deputies and the Teamsters could be back outside the courthouse picketing next month.