2016-10-11 / Front Page

Biddeford firefighter contract enters murky waters

Union president: ‘They just don’t like us, it’s very clear’
Staff Writer

The Biddeford Fire Department’s Central Fire Station on Alfred Street is pictured Monday. On Friday, it was announced the city and BFD’s union had not agreed on terms of an updated labor contract, and that the negotiations will now enter a fact-finding phase. 
ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune The Biddeford Fire Department’s Central Fire Station on Alfred Street is pictured Monday. On Friday, it was announced the city and BFD’s union had not agreed on terms of an updated labor contract, and that the negotiations will now enter a fact-finding phase. ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune BIDDEFORD — The City of Biddeford and representatives from the union representing the Biddeford Fire Department have been unable to reach an agreement in the first phase of negotiations to update the fire department’s contract.

Both parties have mutually filed to proceed with the next step in the negotiation process, known as fact-finding.

“The state defines the process whenever there’s a bump in the road in terms of contract negotiations to move the process forward,” Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant said Monday. “Both sides will be presenting their points of view, and there will be some sort of non-binding determination by a panel, and that is the step we’re moving forward.”

Biddeford’s firefighters have been without a contract since June 30, 2015. Since then, the 40 members of Local 3107 of the International Association of Firefighters have been left wondering about their future with the department.

According to the Maine Labor Relations Board, the fact-finding panel consists of a neutral chair and a representative from both the employer and the employees.

At the fact-finding hearing, both parties will present their arguments to the panel, which will evaluate the evidence and make a recommendation regarding each issue of the dispute, says the board.

Casavant could not discuss specific details of the contract negotiations, including what the city and union are disputing.

“Essentially, both parties disagree with certain segments of the contract dealing with things like salary, sick leave and things of that nature,” he said.

City Manager Jim Bennett said in September that both parties had agreed to make the negotiations private.

Local 3107 President Tim Sevigny said he can’t disclose the nature of the negotiations pending talks with his union’s membership, but he’s not surprised to see the city take the fact-finding route.

“From the beginning, I can tell you the city’s intention was to do this,” Sevigny said. “Looking back at the last year and a half, there was never any negotiations. It’s very, very disappointing, because we work for the city.”

“They just don’t like us, it’s very clear,” he said.

Sevigny told the Journal Tribune in September that he is concerned the quality of the fire department’s services could suffer without a finalized labor contract.

“We have a real big staffing issue, and that’s a lot of what we’re working on,” Sevigny said in September. “It’s a safety issue, and it should be a concern for the citizens of Biddeford.”

Sevigny said the last major hiring of firefighters was in 2004. He also said the department had mandated several years ago that at least 10 firefighters be staffed when possible, with a minimum of eight on duty at all times. But that’s not enough, he said, for a department that has received 5,500 calls this year alone.

Because of increased demand, the department has had to rely on mutual aid agreements with surrounding communities to respond to calls, Sevigny said. Those agreements allow for other fire departments to respond to emergency calls that Biddeford is not able to make.

Casavant said staffing is not of particular concern for the city, because the mutual aid agreements work to protect Biddeford and all surrounding communities. He cited BFD’s availability to respond to calls in Saco as evidence that the mutual aid agreement is working.

“Because we have mutual assistance, everybody in the community is protected,” Casavant said. “Yes, we have an extraordinary number of runs in the city itself, but because of mutual assistance, I think the argument there’s not enough people falls short.”

Casavant said an underlying issue of the contract is that it is the byproduct of what was negotiated years ago, which is no longer economically feasible for the city to maintain.

“Oftentimes what would happen is, rather than pay competitive wages, city councils in the past, because of budget limitations, put articles within (labor contracts) such as retirement, sick leave and benefits to compensate for the low wages,” Casavant said. “Today, those benefits are an incredible liability for the city.”

A press release issued by the city said an unfunded bill in excess of $13 million awaits Biddeford taxpayers in the form of employment benefits resulting from several municipal employment contracts.

On Monday, Casavant estimated the unfunded liability for sick leave alone to be about $1.7 million. At some point, the city’s taxpayers will be responsible – “in some form or fashion,” he said – for paying back that money.

“It’s nothing that’s due immediately,” Casavant said, “but we are liable for that eventually to be paid, and that’s a substantial amount of money.”

Casavant said the negotiations ultimately come down to striking a balance between the union’s demands and the city’s ability to afford them.

“The City Council fully understands that there’s a balancing act between what unions may want and what taxpayers can afford,” Casavant said. “The council is trying to be sensitive to taxpayer concerns, because a lot of the things in the current contract are not something a lot of workers in the city have.

“We’re trying to be fair and conscious to the needs of the individual firemen, and we’re trying balance the needs of the taxpayers.”

Sevigny said he believes the city has wasted taxpayer money throughout the nearly 16-month-long contract negotiation, and that he is sad to see more money wasted through the fact-finding process.

Although disappointed with the latest round of negotiations, he said firefighters will continue to serve the residents of Biddeford and the surrounding communities, and that the fact-finding process won’t affect the fire department’s service.

“We have a job to do. All of our guys are very professional,” he said. “We’re going to go out there and do our job every day, and it’s not an issue.”

— Staff Writer Alan Bennett can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or abennett@journaltribune.com.

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