Reminder Assistant Editor
AGAWAM The messages were clear. Signs held by protestors from the Agawam Police Patrolmen's Union last week at the groundbreaking of the new Senior Center clearly illustrated in large black ink their distaste for Mayor Richard Cohen and the negotiation process.
The signs read: "Mayor got his Raise, Where's ours?" "Support your Police Mayor Cohen Doesn't." "Mayor Cohen is Unfair to Police." "Agawam Police Deserve a Raise." "Elect Susan Dawson Mayor."
Since the expiration of their contract on June 30, three months of negotiations and now mediations between the town and the Agawam Police Patrolmen's Union have still not produced a viable three-year-contract.
"Make no mistake about it, the man shows a dislike for the police," Gary O'Brien, vice president of the Agawam Police Patrolmen's Union and protestor said about Cohen. "The mayor got a $20,000 raise and [the town] is spending $8 million for a new Senior Center but we're being told there's no money for us."
When asked about how negotiations were progressing after the latest mediation on Oct. 10, Cohen said, "I've always maintained that negotiations are just that. There's their side and there's management's side and it's our job to meet somewhere in the middle. We will continue to negotiate until a settlement is reached that is mutually acceptable without placing a large burden on our taxpayers."
O'Brien said the union is asking for a four percent increase for the next three years in order to make their base salaries comparable with other police departments in the region.
According to figures collected by Reminder Publications, the weekly base salary for a new patrolman in Agawam is $744.66; the salary in Westfield is $782.25 per week and the salary in Springfield is $883.
"I just want parity with other towns," Brian Strong, Agawam Police patrolman and protestor said.
He added that he would like to have the opportunity to spend more time with his family rather than working "40 hours of overtime" each week to supplement his low base salary.
Larry Hoague, Jr., Agawam Police patrolman and protestor said he often gives up opportunities to work overtime because he does not have a family of his own yet, therefore giving other officers who "need the money" for their families the ability to "get the hours."
Mark Poggi, president of the Agawam Police Patrolmen's Union said that moving to other police departments in neighboring towns for the higher pay is not an acceptable alternative. This would require the patrolmen to "start at the bottom" and lose their seniority and pay rate.
Poggi noted that the Agawam Police Department is still operating short-staffed with only 35 patrolmen and six vacancies.
O'Brien said that being short-staffed and the difficult contract negotiations has greatly contributed to the low morale within the department.
"We can't strike or do a work stoppage because we have an obligation to public safety," Poggi said. "It's not like in a factory where you can just walk away from the job. Lives depend on us."
The union is so disgruntled with the Cohen and the ongoing negotiations, that Poggi and O'Brien said the union has officially endorsed his opponent Susan Dawson as their mayoral candidate. The protestors also held signs in support of their cause and also campaign signs for Dawson as well.
Poggi said the Agawam Police Patrolmen's Association gave Dawson a $1,000 campaign contribution.
O'Brien said that not only do the union officers think Dawson should be mayor because of her "views and vision" for Agawam but also because they believe "negotiations would go more smoothly with her."
"I am continually concerned that because we are not treating our municipal personnel well morale is down," Dawson said. "This just identifies for me that on a regular basis that the current mayor is addressing the issues of small pockets and people he can identify as a voter base. This has nothing to do with doing the right thing and caring for everyone."
Dawson added that she is campaigning for change because in her mind there is "no other option" to providing a way for municipal employees to obtain the wage increases that they deserve.
When asked about Dawson's views on the negotiation process Cohen said, "I have an obligation to the tax payers of Agawam to be a tough negotiator and fiscally responsible. If my opponent wishes to make this a political event that's fine, but I won't."
After the four and a half hour mediation last week O'Brien said the town is currently reviewing their latest proposal and the union has requested their input within one week. However, he said the town did not confirm through the mediator as to whether that would be acceptable.
O'Brien said the next mediation is scheduled for Oct. 29 and that despite the difficulties, the negotiations are now "moving in the right direction." He said he is hopeful both parties can come to a resolution soon.