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Budget Committee recommends union contracts

January 23, 2013
LITTLETON — Getting to this point hasn't been easy, but the Budget Committee endorsed the town's two revised labor contracts last week. Discussion with town officials was occasionally heated at the Tuesday meeting, but the committee elected to recommend the agreements to the voters.

Before discussing the labor negotiations, the committee generally united to recommend other warrant articles. The revised street sweeper article, which dumps the new unit and authorizes repairing the current sweeper, received a unanimous endorsement.

Marghie Seymour, Chairman of the Board of Selectmen, briefed the committee on the town's proposed contract with the State Employees Association. SEA represents the town's police officers.

It did not take long for Seymour to encounter resistance. She noted that the agreement includes an increase in leave earned from 1.25 days to 1.5 days each month. Budget Committee Chairman Steve Kelley declared that item to be "a small thing moving in the wrong direction."

Seymour responded by discussing the need to negotiate in good faith with unions. She noted that the town receives many benefits from the SEA agreement. "This quarter of a day was one thing we gave up," she noted in her reply to Kelley.

Dann, who often extols the virtue of low spending, offered a defense of the town. He said that the changed leave accrual only adds up to three days per year. Nonetheless, Kelley opined that private sector employees are "getting nothing else like this."

Seymour shot back, "You can't just take away everything . . . We got a pretty substantial savings from this contract negotiation."

Kelley responded, "You're not asking them to give up anything."

Art Tighe sided with Kelley. Although he noted that Seymour negotiated in good faith, he suggested, "At some point the line has to be snapped." He suggested that new hires could possibly not get as generous a leave benefit in the future. Seymour replied that the union was opposed to creating different leave benefits for workers.

Schuyler Sweet saw virtue in Seymour's approach. He said the town could create problems between older and newer workers if benefits varied.

Finance Director Karen Noyes said that several goals guided the town's negotiations. "It's not a perfect process," she said. Even with the difficulty in forging an agreement, Noyes said, "The SEA employees worked very hard with us."

Dann replied by offering additional support for the town. Although there may be lessons for the next contract negotiation, he declared, "I think the negotiators did a pretty good job." Barbara Astone also supported the town's work on the negotiation.

Prior to a vote on the SEA contract, Tighe brought up the two percent pay increase in the town's operating budget. This increase is for non-union employees. Tighe suggested that the town delete that increase if the union warrant articles do not pass. "Follow what the will of the people is," he said. "It's their money."

After the debate, the committee voted four to one to recommend the SEA deal. Two members, including Tighe, abstained.

Selectman Milt Bratz then discussed the town's negotiation with the American Federation of State, County, and Municiapal Employees (ASFCME). AFSCME represents fire department, highway, and transfer station employees.

As with the SEA contract, Bratz said health care cost reductions are an important part of the AFSCME agreement. There was some resistance to the outcome of the negotiation, but the committee ended up endorsing the agreement by a four to three vote.

Noyes said that the town would need to spend about $50,000 if voters do not approve the SEA and AFSCME contracts. This would pay for another round of negotiations. To that, Kelley replied, "The $50,000 may be cheap money to get it right."

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