Tisbury special town meeting Tuesday about police contract

Tisbury special town meeting Tuesday about police contract

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The Tisbury selectmen will make a second request to voters at a special town meeting Tuesday night to approve two spending articles totaling $225,000 to fund the police department union’s contract settlement. The meeting in the Tisbury School gymnasium begins at 7 pm.

The terms of the collective bargaining agreement are the result of binding arbitration by the Massachusetts Joint Labor Management Committee for Municipal Police and Fire.

The special town meeting warrant articles include a request for $125,000 to fund the arbitration award for back pay for the past three-year contract period, and an additional request for $100,000 to fund the compensation increases established by the award for fiscal year 2011 (FY11), which begins July 1. If approved, the spending requests would be paid from available town funds instead of through an override that would raise the tax rate.

The Tisbury selectmen first sought approval for the police department retroactive pay and arbitrated wage increases in a singular article on the April 13 town meeting warrant that required a Proposition 2.5 override for the funding. Although voters approved the warrant article at town meeting, a corresponding ballot question was defeated by 328 votes at the April 29 town elections.

“It is our belief that defeat came as a result of failure in educating the voting public as to details of the article,” Tisbury selectman Geoghan Coogan wrote in an op-ed piece about the police contract and the upcoming special town meeting vote. His op-ed appears in today’s Times.

According to Mr. Coogan, the town of Tisbury and the Tisbury Police Union agreed that the arbitration award is a fair resolution of negotiations that began in 2007 for a three-year contract that will expire on June 30. Although negotiations for a new contract for 2010-2013 should get underway, the prior contract must be resolved first.

“The award is fair, reasonable, and necessary to move forward with our police department,” Mr. Coogan wrote in his article.

As he explained, the arbitration process concludes the negotiations with a decision that is binding on both parties. Since the arbitration award requires a payment from the town, voters must approve the appropriation. If they don’t, the town and police union may either agree on the terms of the contract and return to voters for approval, or begin the entire negotiation process again.

“In this instance, both the town and police union feel the arbitration award remains consistent with the town’s fiscally responsible approach to town finances and also provides reasonable compensation to the police union employees,” Mr. Coogan stated in his article.

The arbitration award provides for a yearly 3.5 percent increase over the three-year contract period, the same given in contracts with Tisbury’s other unions during that time.

If the additional $100,000 is not funded to pay the department at the arbitrated rates beyond June 2010, Mr. Coogan said the lack of adequate funding could lead to layoffs and/or no summer assistance, resulting in less police coverage. Tisbury police officers also are required to be trained as emergency medical technicians.

In seeking approval this time around, the selectmen separated the police wage spending requests into two warrant articles that will be voted at special town meeting and paid from available town funds if approved.

“One article will be for $125,000 from free cash for the retroactive part of the contract, and then we’re taking $100,000 out of stabilization because we don’t have enough free cash to do the whole thing,” municipal finance director Tim McLean said.

Mr. McLean said it was his recommendation to the selectmen and finance and advisory committee to seek funding for the police contract settlement through an override, based on long-term financial considerations for the town budget.

“That extra $225,000 in levy capacity that the override would have given us would have funded that salary increase over a number of years, as opposed to funding it from available funds, which we had the option to do,” Mr. McLean said.

“So the way we’re doing it now is not going to affect the tax rate at all, but it will impact us in the future, because now we don’t have that extra levy capacity,” he added. “It’s just going to tighten up the next budget process for fiscal year 2012 a little bit more than we would have liked.”

Although the Tisbury selectmen have granted a residential exemption that reduces taxes for year-round homeowners by 20 percent since 1988, Mr. McLean said the exemption does not impact the tax levy.

“The dollar amount is just the same as it would be if we didn’t have the residential exemption,” he said. “It just affects who is getting taxed at what rate.”

Mr. McLean also accepted some of the blame for not better explaining the police contract issues, as did Sergeant Robert Fiske, a member of the Tisbury Police Union negotiations team.

“I think both sides didn’t do enough to educate the public about why the amount was what it was,” Sergeant Fiske said in a recent phone call with The Times.

Although arbitration was costly for both the town and the police union, Sergeant Fiske said it was important for an independent third party to look at the arguments, and the arbitration board panel to determine what was fair.

“Both sides spent money to get to that position, but both sides also considered the arbitration decision to be fair,” he said. “It took into account both the town’s need to be fiscally responsible and the police officers’ need to be able to survive economically.”

Tisbury police officers Michael Gately and Scott Ogden also served on the negotiations team.

In talking about his role in negotiations as the union shop steward, Officer Gately told The Times, “I try to bargain the best contract for the membership that I can. I know the town is doing the same on their side.”

When both sides did reach an agreement through binding arbitration, Officer Gately said he thought approval for the funding should have been voted at town meeting, period.

“No other bargaining unit in town had to get their 3.5 percent contract increase through a Proposition 2.5 override,” Officer Gately said. “As a homeowner and a taxpayer, especially in this economic climate, I can understand voters would say no to being asked to raise their property taxes in support of what looks like a hefty raise.”

It actually is not, Sergeant Fiske explained, considering that Tisbury police have been receiving the same hourly rates for six years, under the terms of the last three-year contract negotiated in 2004.

“Everything has gone up exponentially — rents, mortgages, food, utilities — yet officers are still trying to survive on what they were being paid in 2007,” Sergeant Fiske said.

Sometimes that’s a hard point to get across, he noted, especially to voters who look at the annual town report and see a police sergeant as the highest paid employee on the list of town and school employees earning over $30,000.

“That’s because of overtime and details; the town report doesn’t break down what the person’s actual salary is,” Sergeant Fiske said. “We’re on call 24/7, 365 days a year. If someone calls in sick in other town departments, they may be able to get by with one less person on duty. If someone calls in sick at the police department, we have to replace that person.”