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Shutesbury residents urge town to settle fire chief’s pay dispute

  • Shutesbury Fire Chief Walter Tibbetts, listens during a public meeting held to address his pay raise negotiations, Tuesday, June 26, 2018 at Shutesbury Elementary School. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Michael Pill speaks during a public meeting held to address pay raise negotiations with Shutesbury Fire Chief Walter Tibbetts, Tuesday, June 26, 2018 at Shutesbury Elementary School. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Shutesbury Fire Chief Walter Tibbetts, standing, speaks during a public meeting held to address his pay raise negotiations, Tuesday, June 26, 2018 at Shutesbury Elementary School. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Shutesbury Select Board Chairman Michael DeChiara speaks beside fellow board members Elaine Puleo, left, and Melissa Makepeace-O'Neil during a public meeting held to address pay raise negotiations with Shutesbury Fire Chief Walter Tibbetts, Tuesday, at Shutesbury Elementary School. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • 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. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



@dustyc123
Wednesday, June 27, 2018

SHUTESBURY — A large crowd came out to the Select Board meeting on Tuesday evening, largely to show support for the town’s fire chief amid a pay dispute with the town.

The meeting came after five months of contract negotiations between Fire Chief Walter Tibbetts and the town’s negotiating team, after which Tibbetts said he would retire if town officials didn’t meet his pay raise request. The department’s 10 firefighters pledged that by July 31 they, too, would resign if Tibbetts’ demands weren’t met, putting the department’s existence in jeopardy and thrusting the story into local and national news.

At Tuesday’s meeting, resident after resident came up to the microphone to tell stories about Tibbetts: about how he had saved a family member’s life, or rescued pets and personal items from a burning house; about his thrifty nature, often fixing department vehicles himself to save the town money; or about his lengthy service in town, working with the Fire Department since he was 16 years old.

“If you have an emergency, these are the guys who you want responding, and you want Walter to be the first one on the scene,” Jen Taylor, the wife of a town firefighter, said in a comment that seemed to encapsulate in one sentence much of what others said during a lengthy public comment period.

No decision had been made over Tibbetts’ salary by press time. Select Board members were still in a closed-door meeting at 10:15 p.m., according to Tibbetts.

Tibbetts, 55, had originally requested close to a $10,000 raise from his $55,409 salary in fiscal year 2018. The town countered with a $5,000 raise. Tibbetts has stated that he makes $21,000 less than the town’s police chief and other local officials. He was asking, he stated, for fair compensation for the work he puts into the job.

Town officials began Tuesday’s meeting in a closed session. Emerging for their public session, Chairman Michael DeChiara gave a timeline of the town’s negotiations with Tibbetts. Sitting beside town officials, clad in a crisp suit, was a Boston lawyer the town had retained as labor counsel.

Background

DeChiara said that in November 2017, after the town’s police chief had received a 6 percent raise, Tibbetts informed the town’s personnel board that he wanted parity with the police chief. From January through June 19, there were nine negotiation meetings with Tibbetts and the negotiating team.

DeChiara said town officials looked at other towns of comparable size, and saw 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.”

Initially, DeChiara said the town offered Tibbetts an increase of 18 percent over three years — a proposal Tibbetts said he rejected because it would have tied his salary to the police chief’s salary, which he interpreted as meaning he would have received a pay decrease if the police chief did.

Next, DeChiara said the town looked into compensating Tibbetts with overtime, but because more than half of his job is administrative tasks they were prohibited from doing so because of federal tax laws.

The town’s next offer was a 4 percent increase following a decision to give all town employees without a contract a 2.5 percent pay bump, DeChiara said, adding that Tibbetts rejected that offer and another one that proposed an 8.5 percent raise. DeChiara said the town’s fire chief has been paid less than the police chief since 2006, when that discrepancy first arose.

Following that update, DeChiara opened the floor to public comments with no time limit. What resulted was largely a show of community love and support for Tibbetts, a third-generation firefighter who has served at the department for around 39 years — at times with his mother and sister, too.

First to the microphone was Michael Pill, who lives right across from the Fire Department. He said that day and night, no matter the weather, he is in awe of the firefighters’ dedication. Looking at the lawyer sitting at the table with town officials, Pill — a lawyer himself — offered critical words.

“If things turn into a legal battle, the only winners will be the lawyers. Make no mistake about it,” he said.

In a call soon echoed by others, Pill asked that the town be allowed to vote on the fire chief’s pay. “I think New England democracy is the best way out for all of us.”

Stephen Schmidt, a longtime member of the town’s finance team, said the fact that Tibbetts has been paid less over the years means the town has gotten a bargain, but that Tibbetts shouldn’t be penalized for that going forward.

“Spreadsheets, budgets — those are my things,” he said, drawing laughter. “But there are things that spreadsheets and budgets don’t capture. A person’s competence, a person’s dedication, it just falls through the cracks there … The fire chief definitely deserves a significant increase.”

That was also the opinion of Linda Newcomb, a retired Amherst police officer. She said the town’s fire department and resident fire chief respond to emergencies immediately, and without them there are delays that can be dangerous.

“He goes to every single call in town. That’s unheard of. Even if he has a party at his house and the call comes in, he goes,” she said. “If we’re waiting for Amherst to come up the hill, it takes a while.”

Lee Elder, a firefighter in town, said he and his fellow firefighters decided to put in their letters of resignation, because if Tibbetts couldn’t train the next chief, it would put their safety and the town’s in jeopardy.

There were some residents who expressed concern about the precedent this contract dispute and failed negotiations would have on future contract negotiations the town entered.

“I am not in favor of having government done by a popular vote on contract negotiations,” Susie Mosier said. “Working through a process that uses governance and rule of law seems extremely important to me, and going off of that seems unwise.”

Mostly, however, public comments were similar to the thoughts expressed by Bob Lombard, who said Tibbetts was the first responder when Lombard fell out of a tree: “Give him the dough.”

“It was totally overwhelming. I was impressed and overwhelmed that, first of all, my firefighters stood behind me like they did,” Tibbetts told the Gazette after the meeting, referring to the fact that the firefighters showed up in uniform to sit together with him.

“To see that many people show up and tell the stories that they did and show the support that they did, that was just overwhelming.”

Tibbetts said he is willing to continue negotiations with the town, adding that he gave a July 31 deadline for exactly that reason.

If the town’s fire department folds, that could mean Amherst and other towns would be responding to emergencies in Shutesbury. Amherst has a mutual aid agreement with Shutesbury, and Fire Chief Tim Nelson has vowed to honor that agreement.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.