Unionization almost done, morale up in Paris

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PARIS — Even with the town’s third union almost finalized – per-diem firefighters – department heads are reporting improved morale in Paris.

Firefighters voted in November to form a union with Teamsters Local 340. The vote was counted on Nov. 30, according to Town Manager Vic Hodgkins.

“I know the guys are still waiting for the final paperwork for the union so that’s not in place as of yet but they did vote to do it,” Interim Fire Chief Scott Hunter said.

Lorne Smith, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 340, acknowledged it took almost a year for the firefighters to vote to unionize, as the process began in December 2015.

“That one was dragged out a little more. That was challenged and re-challenged,” he said. “I will be coming up to meet with the Fire Department and we will be beginning negotiations shortly. It’s moving along. It is not as contentious as what I had figured.”

Smith is referring to last year when roughly 30 of the town’s employees showed up at his Portland office to form unions because they were “scared for their future,” and worried about job security, he said at the time.

The unionization action came after selectmen pledged to cut $500,000 in municipal spending for the fiscal 2016 budget. This was prompted when resident (and now selectman) Scott Buffington petitioned the selectboard to cap the town’s mil rate to the state average to make Paris more competitive with neighboring towns, which was ultimately deemed not valid by the town’s attorney.

He organized his citizens petition after the mil rate jumped 40 cents and many residents called for tax relief. Town officials blamed the school district for Paris’ increased contribution to SAD 17 and school officials said it was the town’s reevaluation that caused the higher mil rate.

The are 18 per-diem firefighters who will join the five administration employees who voted to form their union in March. The Police Department has had a union for years and currently has six members.

“We’ve had several sessions with the police and the admin unit [administration union] and we are very close to the police [finalizing a contract]. The admin contract being the first contract, it takes a little longer,” Smith said. “I was quite surprised at how well it’s going [considering] all the circumstances.”

Employees of the Highway Department voted earlier this year to not form a union, but have a year to reconsider their vote. Hodgkins did not have an update on the department and Highway Director Jamie Hutchinson couldn’t be reached for comment.

From January to November 2016, the town has spent $25,101.38 on attorney fees for union work, according to Town Clerk Liz Knox. Hodgkins said he believes the town is on the other side of the major expense for unionization in town.

“I don’t anticipate a lot more in terms of direct expense [for] lawyers for union negotiations,” he said. “We are doing our own negotiations.”

Hodgkins and the majority of the town’s department heads say morale has improved in town.

“I think we are in a far better space today than we were a year ago,” Hodgkins said, who served as selectman before he was appointed as town manager.

Hunter agreed.

“It seems to be better,” he said. “As far as everything [the firefighters] are looking for, we are hoping to address those issues in the upcoming budget. Hopefully it won’t be much of a problem when it’s all said and done.”

Over in the police station, Detective Sgt. Mike Dailey said any time there are negotiations, it can be tense. But he doesn’t recall this go around being any different than what’s he and the rest of the department has experienced every three years when it’s time to hammer out a new contract.

“I think with any time you start getting stability that takes care of some of the issues you may have,” he said.

In April, Detective Richard Belanger and then-Interim Police Chief Jeff Lange left for jobs elsewhere, citing negativity in town. And in August, then-Code Enforcement Officer Fred Collins put in his two weeks and then-Fire Chief Brad Frost retired early, both citing negativity and low morale.

But things appear to be on the upswing in Paris, officials say.

“As long as everything is stable, I think everyone here is happy,” Dailey said.

Knox agreed things are getting better.

“Morale is up but like anything if they start the talk of cutting it will bring down the staff. I am not going to lie, it is different, but I don’t feel or see the [negativity] like before,” she said. “I feel and see the town going in a more positive way. We will always have a bump in the road along the way, but it is getting better.”

Smith said negotiations with Fire Department personnel will begin in January and he hopes to have a contract ratified during the first quarter of the calendar year.

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