|By Katelyn Gendron|
Reminder Assistant Editor
AGAWAM Tensions between Mayor Richard Cohen and the Agawam Police Patrolmen's Union remain high as the two parties continue to butt heads over an appropriate contract.
The union has even taken their fight to the streets by picketing the mayor and his negotiation tactics. Gary O'Brien, vice president of the Agawam Police Patrolmen's Union, said, "we just couldn't sit back idle."
The union is seeking a wage comparable to that of police departments in neighboring towns. They say Agawam partolmen are the lowest paid in the area.
According to salary figures collected by Reminder Publications, the weekly base salary of a new Agawam Police Patrolman is $744.66; the weekly base salary in East Longmeadow is $837.65 and the salary in Springfield is $883.00
Prior to the expiration of the Patrolmen's Union contract on June 30, O'Brien said the two parties were in preliminary talks. He added that initial offers made by the town included only a 19-cent increase for shift differential, clothing and role call pay.
"I don't know what's more of a slap in the face in the year 2007 than an increase of cents," he said.
Mark Poggi, president of the Agawam Police Patrolmen's Union said the initial offer presented by the town this spring was for only a 1.5 percent increase, which he said would not even cover the rising cost of health insurance.
However, in a lengthy statement released by Cohen last week, he stated that the initial offer from the town was a 2.5 percent increase for the next three years. He added that the union countered with a five percent increase.
Presently the two parties are negotiating through a third party mediator, as previous negotiation meetings have proven unsuccessful.
"The contempt for the police is so obvious when you are in that mediation room," O'Brien said.
"This has been a difficult contract year with this union," Cohen said. He went on to say, "The people of the town of Agawam should be made aware that our Police Department is not the lowest paid in the area when you look at their total employment and benefit package."
According to figures released by the town of Agawam, the average gross pay for a patrolman from last year was $72,966.49.
Both Poggi and O'Brien said the figures are grossly skewed. They explained that in addition to their base salaries last year, the patrolmen received a year and a half of retroactive pay from previously unsettled contracts, their educational incentive pay, as well as overtime and other benefits.
According to the town figures, Poggi grossed $90,881.05 in 2006; O'Brien grossed $84,627.44; however, he said that $20,000 of his salary is attributed to retroactive pay and overtime.
He added that in a pay stub dated Sept. 27, 2007 he has grossed $49,291.38 this year.
Poggi said that the figures were a "half truth," and attributes the gross figures to numerous hours spent working overtime, night shifts, and outside details.
He said that last week he worked 57 hours, while other officers "hustle" and work 75-80 hours per week.
"Try to get a mortgage or students loans on what you might make in overtime, it doesn't work that way," he said.
He added that the mayor was given a $20,000 raise by the City Council in order to be comparable to area mayors. Poggi questioned how only the mayor's salary must be comparable to other local towns but not the patrolmen's salaries.
"My ultimate goal as your mayor is to settle the public employee contracts in a manner that is equitable for the unions and fair to the taxpayers who must pay the bill," Cohen said.
He added that he has achieved this goal twice in his tenure as mayor and that he is "confident that all current contracts can be settled in a similar manner."
However, he said that in regards to the Police negotiations and their picketing, he "finds it unusual that they have become so aggressive in their public statements and actions considering all other unions are on the same timelines."
In addition to the union's picket signs stating their distaste for Cohen, union members have also held signs endorsing Susan Dawson, Cohen's opponent in this year's elections.
The Agawam Police Patrolmen's Union has officially endorsed Dawson as their mayoral candidate by giving her a $1,000 campaign contribution.
In a press release, Cohen said he has "never accepted money from any of the 13 unions" as it would be a "conflict of interest during negotiations."
At press time, Dawson said she has returned the money because "it was a mistake to cash that check." However, she added that O'Brien has insisted on her keeping the contribution as a way of showing the union's support for her candidacy.
Dawson said she is only interested in the patrolmen receiving an equitable base salary. She said she has made a promise to unions leaders that, if elected, she would treat them with "dignity and respect" throughout the negotiation process becuase she felt they have not been treated as such.
The next mediation between the town and the Agawam Police Patrolmen's Union has been rescheduled for Nov. 19.