Residents of Paris, Maine exited their homes on Aug. 18 in the humid summer heat to discover a peculiar flyer inside their mailboxes – one that appeared to have originated from the local fire department.
At the top of the mailer were headshots of Scott Buffington and Rick Little, two public figures in the local community who chair the Paris Board of Selectmen and Budget Committee, respectively. The heavy cardstock handout accused the two men of “playing politics with public safety,” and was riddled with misinformation regarding the town’s decision to reassess its fire safety needs.
The mailer partially reads, “BURNED Select Board Chair Scott Buffington has ambushed residents with a plan to dismantle the Fire Department. No Debate. No Public Comment. No Clue,” and was sent from “Friends of Paris Firefighters.” Its full contents can be seen in the picture below.
Until 2011, the town of Paris had an on-call, volunteer fire department. After losing a number of daytime volunteers in 2010, the department switched to a per diem model the following year, adding regular daytime staff to meet the town’s needs. The per diem workers signed a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in November 2016 to join the Teamsters Local 340 union. The agreement was the first of its kind in Maine for a strictly per diem department.
At the town’s annual meeting on June 17, after a rigorous and lively 45-minute debate, voters approved to cut the Paris Fire Department’s budget by a vote of 52-37. The amendment also established a three month transition period to ensure adequate fire coverage while the department switched back to its former model.
Due to a recent influx in volunteers and the concerted effort to keep taxes low, Buffington, other members of the board and local taxpayers no longer deemed the per diem model a necessity. The $145,000 in approved cuts effectively returned the department to an on-call, volunteer system, requiring the town reduce its fire chief’s annual salary and eliminate the hourly wages of per diem firefighters.
Despite featuring the location of the Paris Fire Department as its return address, the mailer did not originate from the town’s fire department or any other town agency. As confirmed by the Advertiser Democrat, the handout was paid for by Teamsters – the same union that signed a CBA with the per diem firefighters. Additionally, Paris town administrative officials and its police department are unionized with Teamsters. giving the union leverage over the town that they’ve exploited to no end.
Teamsters Local 340 remains in active negotiations but has not yet signed a contract with the town concerning the per diems. It is uncertain if discussions will continue as planned on Sept. 18.
Using a predictable union tactic, the mailer sent to every Paris resident depicts images of the local fire department and fire engine, bearing a return address of the Paris Fire Department’s physical location. However, it did not include the town’s full zip code, as the union opted to intentionally eliminate the final number in the five digit sequence.
“When you look at this flyer, it uses a logo from our fire department, it shows pictures of our fire trucks and it includes the address of our fire department,” Buffington said. “I’ve gotten calls from people in town who think our fire department sent this out. This is what corporate money can do to a small town.”
Similarly, the union has begun filing prohibitive practice complaints with the Maine Labor Relations Board to keep pressure on the town during negotiations, setting their sights on the Board of Selectmen after its attempts to follow through on promises to reduce municipal spending.
“They don’t file these complaints because there’s an actual problem,” Buffington said. “They do it because they know it will cost our taxpayers anywhere between $3,000 and $5,000 in legal fees just to answer to the complaint.”
“That’s the game they play. Eventually, [the complaints] add up. If they don’t get their way, they will cost our taxpayers $30,000 in legal fees.”
To date, Teamsters has filed three prohibitive practice complaints with the town of Paris concerning negotiations over the per diem firefighters. All three complaints were distributed to local media at their time of their filing to build additional pressure on the town.
The most recent complaint, filed on August 22, accuses Buffington and Little of attempting to bust the union, as Little introduced the amendment at the annual town meeting and Buffington seconded the motion.
“We firmly believe that Scott Buffington and Rick Little [are] union busting because that’s what they’re doing,” Lorne Smith, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 340, told the Advertiser Democrat.
The first complaint against the town was filed in June due to alleged change in work hours for the per diem firefighters. When the per diem model was approved in 2011, the town permitted daytime staff to work 32 hours a week. To ease scheduling issues, the department adopted, as new standard operating procedure, a 36 hour weekly model which allowed per diem staff to work three 12-hour shifts a week, or four more hours weekly per worker than what the town originally approved.
According to Buffington and Little, inadequate management at the fire department allowed a per diem firefighter to be scheduled around 52 hours a week, costing local taxpayers overtime pay when the same firefighter responded to nightly emergency calls. This was troublesome for Buffington and Little, as both aimed to reduce the local tax burden.
“Either we send one of our best firefighters home in an emergency, which doesn’t make any sense to me, or we maintain his hours at what he’s supposed to be working,” Buffington said. “Then, when we have calls after hours, that person can still respond and it’s not costing us extra money.”
The other grievance, a bad faith negotiations complaint, was filed in July because the town manager, Victor Hodgkins, did not adequately respond to a question about the future of the per diem system, according to Teamsters.
“Due to the sensitiveness of the ongoing union negotiations, I will not comment at this time,” Hodgkins told the Advertiser Democrat on Aug. 22.
The remaining funds in the fire department’s budget allow for roughly 13 weeks of per diem coverage, lasting until Oct. 1.
After a Select Board meeting on Aug. 28, all 18 of Paris’ per diem firefighters received notice from Hodgkins that they would be laid off on Sept. 30 as the department transitions back to on-call, volunteer coverage.
“We truly thank [the per diem firefighters] for their loyal service and are absolutely thrilled to see that many are returning to serve Paris as volunteer firefighters,” Buffington said after the layoffs. “This is outstanding public service and we could not be more proud as our highly trained volunteer Fire Department continues to grow to levels not seen for years.”
A petition with 245 validated signatures to reinstate the $145,000 in cuts back into the fire department’s budget was given to the Board of Selectmen at their Aug. 28 meeting, and the board decided to forward the petition to the town’s attorney for assessment.
“The board felt as though this petition may fall under a ‘ping pong’ warrant article,” Buffington said. “This is a tricky situation. Do we discount the vote of the people at town meeting because some could not find the time to make the annual meeting and they did not like the outcome? Do we ignore the 245 people who signed this petition?”
Despite the union’s attempt to slander Buffington and Little, the pair has received positive feedback from the community.
“Most people have been supportive, which surprised me,” Little said about the flyer. “I think we live in a small town that doesn’t like big city bully tactics.”