Tisbury police grievance hearing spurs closer scrutiny
Tisbury town administrator John Bugbee and town accountant Suzanne Kennedy said this week they would review police department procedures governing overtime pay and sick and vacation leave that were raised at a grievance hearing on January 25.
"We want to have everyone working under the same contract with the same rules applied to everybody," Mr. Bugbee said in a phone conversation Tuesday. "So if we become aware or it's brought to our attention that perhaps the paperwork that's coming from the police department is not as accurate as we need it to be, in terms of equitably applying the contract to the police department, then it's up to us to correct those problems. And that's what we're working through now."
The Tisbury selectmen held a hearing last Tuesday, at the request of police officer Kelly Kershaw, after Mr. Bugbee, the personnel manager for municipal employees, denied a grievance she brought over the town's refusal to pay her overtime rates, because the pay calculation included hours attributed to sick leave.
Ms. Kershaw argued that in the past, other officers used sick-leave time to qualify for overtime pay, but that she was treated differently.
Mr. Bugbee based his decision on police department contract provisions that require officers to work 40 hours before they become eligible for overtime pay at 1.5 times the straight-time hourly rate. Town officials acknowledged past laxness but upheld their administrator's decision.
In fact, the police contract allows the department's 11 police officers to count sick time and vacation time as time worked for the purposes of calculating overtime, but only when the officer provides seven days notice that he or she intends to use that time.
The distinction is that scheduled sick leave does not cover unanticipated illness, for example when someone wakes up with a fever. Rather, it is a benefit used to pay officers for time used for medically related activities such as doctor and dentist appointments. The contract allows officers who fill overtime shifts, who already have scheduled time off, to count that time as hours worked for the purpose of qualifying for overtime, Ms. Kennedy explained.
Since July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year, Tisbury had paid $96,610 in overtime pay to police officers, she said. Ms. Kennedy did not say how much of that amount was paid to officers when scheduled or unscheduled sick time was included in the calculation of hours worked, because as she explained, that would involve going back and looking at each individual payroll.
The police union contract provides for one day a month of sick time and between 12 days to 25 days of vacation a year, based on the number of years worked. Sick time and vacation time may be carried over from year to year, for a maximum accrual of 90 sick days and 36 vacation days.
Mr. Bugbee said Tuesday he does not expect selectmen to seek to recoup past overtime pay for hours calculated incorrectly.
"If the selectmen wanted to go in that direction, then obviously we would put in motion that process, but I think the message was clear that nobody wants to go backwards," Mr. Bugbee said. "That's going to create, obviously, a huge paperwork mess for the accountant's office, it will lead to a lot of bad feelings in the police department, and that's not where we want to go. We want to go forward."
With that goal in mind, Mr. Bugbee said, he and town accountant Suzanne Kennedy met Monday to develop a tentative "game plan" to address the issues the hearing brought to light.
"Right now it's a matter of working out the issues with regard to the contract and how it's being applied to the paychecks, and making sure that the payroll that is being sent from the police department to town hall has the correct paperwork associated to identify whether the time is scheduled or unscheduled," Mr. Bugbee said.
Ms. Kennedy said she reviewed the incidents Ms. Kershaw detailed. She said the goal is to correct the procedures going forward.
"We'll have to make sure it doesn't happen again," she said. "We certainly don't want any appearance that we're treating anybody differently."
Police Chief Dan Hanavan declined to comment on any details of the grievance hearing. Regarding the overarching issues of how pay is calculated, he said scheduled versus unscheduled leave and overtime pay are contract issues.
"The police union members are at the end of a three-year contract, and now's the time for them to discuss and clear up anything they have misgivings about, as they negotiate the next one," Chief Hanavan said.
Members of the Tisbury Police Union are now working without a contract. The town is in negotiations over a new contract that would be retroactive to July 2010 and extend through 2013.
"We hope to have something done in the next month," selectman Geoghan Coogan wrote in an email yesterday, in response to questions from The Times.
Working without a contract is nothing new. Negotiations began in 2007 on a new contract set to begin that year, but the two sides could not agree. In the end, both submitted to binding arbitration by the Massachusetts Joint Labor Management Committee for Municipal Police and Fire.
A decision came last spring and — three years into a contract that expired on June 30, 2010 — both sides signed.
Tisbury voters approved spending $225,000 to fund the union contract settlement at a special town meeting on July 1, 2010.