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Editorial: Shutesbury, fire chief must settle pay dispute

  • Shutesbury Fire Chief Walter Tibbetts listens during a public meeting held to address his pay raise negotiations on June 26 at the Shutesbury Elementary School. FILE PHOTO

Published: 7/19/2018 9:00:09 AM
Modified: 7/19/2018 9:50:23 AM

The town of Shutesbury and Fire Chief Walter Tibbetts must work this month to settle their pay dispute and keep the fire department intact.

The stalemated negotiations over a new three-year contract for Tibbetts have become so contentious that he has threatened to retire if he is not given a $10,000 pay raise, and the department’s 10 on-call volunteer firefighters have pledged to quit if the chief leaves. That could leave Shutesbury without a fire department.

A hopeful sign is that the two sides are still talking. After a lengthy Selectboard meeting June 26 failed to resolve the dispute, Town Administrator Rebecca Torres confirmed that “the Selectboard and Walter are moving ahead and they will begin negotiations again. … The important thing is we are looking to sit down and continue talking in an effort to bring people’s differences together.”

We urge Tibbetts, as a show of good faith, to withdraw the letter he submitted to the Selectboard on June 19 that set a retirement date of July 31 if he is not given a $10,000 raise. It is better to negotiate without the cloud of such a threat.

Tibbetts, 55, has worked for the fire department since he was 16 and has been chief for 23 years. He was paid $55,409 during the fiscal year that ended June 30, and has been negotiating a new contract since January.

Tibbetts contends that he deserves the additional $10,000 to bring him closer to the pay of Police Chief Thomas Harding. According to Torres, Harding makes $76,489 a year, Highway Department Superintendent Timothy Hunting is paid $63,772 annually and Torres’ salary is $57,315.

Selectboard Chairman Michael DeChiara said in June that after Harding was given a 6 percent raise in November, Tibbetts told the town’s personnel board that he wanted parity with the police chief. The town offered Tibbetts an 18 percent increase over three years, which would have brought his pay to $65,383 in 2021. Tibbetts turned that down and also rejected an immediate 8.5 percent raise that would have increased his pay to $60,119 this year.

DeChiara said that Tibbetts has been paid less than the police chief since 2006, the second year of a five-year process to make the fire chief’s job full-time. That came after Tibbetts threatened to resign in 2004, saying he needed a full-time income. The Selectboard agreed to gradually increase the hours from 25 a week in 2005 to full-time in 2009.

Among the difficulties for the Selectboard is that there are few communities close to the same size as Shutesbury (population 1,760) that have a full-time fire chief. Just one such valley town — Russell, in Hampden County, which has 1,775 residents and a full-time chief, who earns $23,000 a year.

Tibbetts has the support of many people in town who want to see him better compensated and remain as chief. On June 24, residents gathered at the Shutesbury Athletic Club to collect signatures on a petition calling for a special Town Meeting to vote on a $65,000 salary for Tibbetts during the fiscal year that began July 1.

Two nights later, residents turned out in force to tell the Selectboard that Tibbetts deserves that raise because his immediate response to emergencies makes the town safer. Linda Newcomb, a retired Amherst police officer, said, “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. If we’re waiting for Amherst to come up the hill, it takes a while.”

If the fire department disbands, Amherst — which has a mutual aid agreement with Shutesbury — would be among the towns responding to emergencies.

Tibbetts also is the emergency management director for Shutesbury, and is responsible for planning responses to emergencies such as natural disasters and coordinating them with other public safety officials.

One option for the Selectboard is to sweeten its offer of a 8.5 percent pay increase with an additional stipend — perhaps $3,000 — for Tibbetts’ work as emergency coordinator.

We urge both sides to consider that sort of compromise to achieve the goal that seemingly everyone wants — a fairly compensated fire chief remaining to lead a well-respected fire department.

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