Town prevails in police pay dispute

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By Jason Starr

The town of Colchester prevailed last month in a dispute over wages with its police officers.

Arbitrator Michael Ryan ruled the town is correctly calculating officers’ annual pay increases as prescribed in the three-year employment contract agreed to by both sides last spring.

The officers’ union filed a grievance with town administrators in August, two months after ratifying the contract.

The dispute centers on the value of employment longevity and amounts to about $17,000 per year in disputed wages for seven of the department’s most senior officers. The town denied the grievance in November, and the union called for binding arbitration to settle the matter.

According to the union, former Colchester chief financial officer Joan Boehm was miscalculating annual raises for senior officers during the 2013-2015 contract.

Boehm acknowledged the error and recalculated pay increases before she retired in 2013. The officers argued their current contract does not carry forward the change Boehm made.

Union president Jack Lehneman did not return calls seeking comment.

Town manager Dawn Francis entered contract negotiations in 2014 seeking a clear annual percentage salary increase of roughly 3 percent. The two sides eventually agreed on annual increases of 3.25-3.35 percent.

“One of the town’s goals was to bring predictability and crystal clarity to the pay language and grids,” Ryan wrote in his June decision. “The town’s team repeatedly expressed this objective to the union.”

If the union’s grievance was upheld, some officers would have received increases higher than the negotiated annual percentage, Ryan wrote.

In denying the grievance, Ryan wrote past practice could not supersede the two parties’ agreed-upon contract.

“Since the contract language is clear and unambiguous, extrinsic evidence of a purported past practice is neither admissible nor relevant,” he wrote. “The union cannot renege on its knowing agreement.

“The town gave the union ample opportunity to review its salary calculations in detail before making it a part of the (contract),” he continued. “The union’s contentions, however reasonable and sincere they may have been, cannot prevail against the utmost clarity of [the contract].”

Francis said this week she wants to move forward from the dispute with a positive relationship with Colchester police officers.