Shutesbury fire chief, town officials to resume contract negotiations 

  • Shutesbury Fire Chief Walter Tibbetts, front row, far right, Shutesbury firefighters, and their families listen to favorable comments about the chief during a public meeting held to address his pay raise negotiations, Tuesday, at Shutesbury Elementary School. Tibbetts and the Select Board agreed Thursday to continue negotiations. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer 
Published: 6/28/2018 6:48:29 PM

SHUTESBURY —  Fire Chief Walter Tibbetts and the Select Board are heading back to the negotiating table to try and settle a salary impasse that has been the talk of the town over the last week.

Town Administrator Rebecca Torres confirmed that both parties were willing to continue talks for a three-year contract following an impasse over Tibbetts’ request of a $10,000 raise from his current $55,409 salary. The Select Board’s highest counter offer was a $5,000 raise.

The decision to resume talks follows Tuesday’s Select Board meeting where residents turned out in strong support for Tibbetts.

None of the Select Board members — Michael DeChiara, Melissa Makepeace and Elaine Puleo — responded to multiple requests for comment.

“The Select Board and Walter are moving ahead and they will begin negotiations again,” Torres said. “After the meeting this past Tuesday, (Walter) expressed a willingness to return to negotiations … The important thing is we are looking to sit down and continue talking in an effort to bring people’s differences together.”

Tuesday’s Select Board meeting came after five months of contract negotiations between Tibbetts, 55, and the town’s negotiating team, after which Tibbetts said he would retire if town officials did not meet his pay raise request. The department’s 10 firefighters pledged that by July 31 they, too, would resign if Tibbetts’ demands were not met, effectively folding the fire department.

No comparables

At this week’s Select Board meeting, Chairman DeChiara said town officials looked at other towns of comparable size and found that Shutesbury was the only one with a full-time fire chief.

“There are no comparables for this position,” he said. “Going into negotiations, often you say, ‘What is everyone else doing.’ We had no way to do that.”

The Gazette found similar results in its survey of fire departments at similarly sized towns to Shutesbury, which has a population of 1,760. Only one town, Russell, in Hampden County, has a full-time chief.

Ashfield (population 1,715) Fire Chief Del Haskins is part time with a yearly stipend of $7,650, according to Town Administrator Kayce Warren. There are 25 volunteer firefighters paid on call.

Pelham (population 1,331) Fire Chief Raymond A. Murphy Jr., is part time with a yearly salary of $25,393, according to Murphy. There is a deputy chief, two lieutenants and eight volunteer firefighters paid based on rank.

Outside of Franklin County, similarly sized towns include Russell (population 1,775) and Beckett (population 1,779).

In Russell, Fire Chief Michael Morrisey is full time with a yearly salary of $23,000, according to Town Accountant Nancy Boersig. She said Morrisey is nearing retirement and the next chief will be part time. The rest of the department is made up of volunteer firefighters.

In Beckett, Fire Chief Mark Hanford is a volunteer firefighter paid a yearly stipend of $4,000 and firefighters in the department are paid a $700 yearly stipend, according to Hanford.

Tibbetts makes his case

Over the past five months of contract negotiations, Tibbetts said, his job description was rewritten to “more define what the job entails now” since it had not been updated in 12 years.

In that process his workload doubled, he said, as the town asked him to document how much time he spends on various tasks. Town officials “told me that when it ever came time to retire or leave the job they would probably have to hire two, if not three, people to do all the jobs I do,” he said.

Tibbetts maintains he is one of the lowest paid town employees. Police Chief Thomas Harding makes $76,489 a year, Highway Department Superintendent Timothy Hunting makes $63,772 a year, and Town Administrator Rebecca Torres makes $57,315 a year, according to Torres.

Tibbetts has served on the Fire Department since he was 16 years old and became fire chief 23 years ago. The position became full time in 2009 after a decision by the Select Board in 2004 to change it from part time at the request of members of the fire department, according to Torres.

The change occurred gradually over the course of five years. In 2005 and 2006 it was 25 hours a week; in 2007 it was 30 hours a week; in 2008 it was 35 hours a week; in 2009 it went to 40 hours a week.

The decision by the Select Board to make the fire chief position full time came after a 2004 meeting when nine firefighters — faced with Tibbetts’ decision to seek a full-time job elsewhere — asked board members to retain Tibbetts by changing the position from part to full time, Torres said.

“What happened was there was a Select Board meeting where the Fire Department came and said Walter would potentially leave for a full-time job and they really wanted him to stay,” Torres said. “They asked the town to look toward making that job into a full-time job.”

According to Select Board Meeting minutes of March 9, 2004, Tibbetts delivered copies of a letter of his resignation effective July 31, 2004 to the board. He explained that he could not keep the duties of his then full-time job as well as running the fire department as he needed the income of his full-time job. The minutes reflect Torres’ praise for the way Tibbetts “professionalized” the department.

Torres, who was chairwoman of the board at the time, said due to Tibbetts’ “enormous amount of knowledge” and background with the department he had the trust and faith of the rest of the firefighters.

“There was a history of him doing very good work and he did it not just in the fire department… he added value in other areas beyond just responding as a firefighter,” Torres said.

Tibbetts serves as the president of Franklin County Fire Chiefs Association and the chairman of the Franklin County Emergency Communication System Oversight Committee, which Tibbetts said benefits the town as well.

At the time of their decision to make the position full time, the Select Board believed that Tibbetts would add “stability” to the department because they were not sure it would be there if he left, according to Torres.

“The position we are in now is from the vulnerability that can be created when a department is built around one individual,” Torres said.

Hard to compare

Even as Tibbetts has become a cornerstone for the department he’s served for 39 years, the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts cautions against comparing fire departments.

“I have a saying I use which is: If you’ve seen one fire department, you’ve seen one fire department,” said Jack Parow, secretary of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts and former president and chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. “Everyone is unique and (each department) has their own needs… You can’t cast a net over fire departments and say they are all the same.”

He said the demand for firefighters has increased over the past few years and there is more accountability for fire chiefs since he first joined the fire service in 1975.

“Smaller towns are going more toward full-time chiefs for day-to-day operations, whether for inspections, answering the phone, or being the voice of the department,” Parow said. “When people pull up to the department they expect to be able to speak with the chief. It becomes a quality of life issue.”

As for Shutesbury Fire Department, Torres said questions have been raised over “every angle” of the department, and said town officials really are not sure what to do at this point.

“We need to do more research on how to move forward with the valuable assets we have but also look to the future because (Walter) is not always going to be there,” Torres said.

According to the Shutesbury Fire/Emergency Management Facebook page, a petition has been started for a special Town Meeting regarding Tibbetts’ pay, but calls to the department were not returned by press time.

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com


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