Union makes pitch for jobs, taxes

Article published Feb 18, 2015

By Neal P. Goswami

MONTPELIER — Members of the Vermont State Employees Association took to the State House on Tuesday to make a direct pitch to lawmakers and the governor to abandon proposed cuts and instead raise taxes as they work to balance the state budget.

More than 100 state workers gathered for the union’s State House Day, hoping to ward off budget cuts Gov. Peter Shumlin has proposed making to various services, including emergency dispatching and the education of inmates. 

The governor has proposed closing dispatch centers in Rutland and Derby and shifting the duties to existing ones in Rockingham and Williston. The move, the Shumlin administration argues, would save the state $1.7 million and not affect public safety. The union counters that it would cost dozens of jobs and have a major impact on public safety.

Shumlin met some state workers for a casual conversation in the State House cafeteria Tuesday. They used the opportunity to share their concerns with the governor about his proposed cuts.

“There’s an obvious public safety issue if you’re expecting less people to do more work,” said Melissa Sharkis, a dispatcher at the Rutland facility that could close.

Dispatchers in Williston and Rockingham will not have the knowledge of local neighborhoods or rural locations, Sharkis said. 

“The more time we have to spend looking up locations if we don’t know the area, that’s longer that it takes to get people help,” she said.

Thomas Lague, another dispatcher, said reducing dispatch jobs would hurt communities.

“We know there’s a budget, and we know that we need to trim corners, but if we want to grow the economy, cutting the service sector doesn’t appear to be the best route to do it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bill Storz, who works in the Community High School of Vermont, told Shumlin that cutting the program, which provides education to inmates, is a mistake. It’s facing a proposed 50 percent cut in funding.

“I want to make first clear that the budget cut is based on declining need, or perceived declining need. We feel that there really is no declining need,” he said. 

But Shumlin did not seem to be moved by what he heard. A few moments later he told reporters that the cuts are necessary to help balance the state budget, which faces a gap of at least $112 million in the 2016 fiscal year.

“It’s my responsibility as governor to balance the budget in a responsible way,” he said. “We came up with over $15 million of ongoing efficiencies just in the way state government can deliver services to be more efficient and meet the challenges that we’re facing of over a $100 million budget gap.”

He said his public safety team has reviewed the plans to consolidate dispatch centers. It can be done without harming public safety efforts around the state, he said.

“We firmly believe that we can make that system more efficient with technology that’s advanced since the system we created a long time ago, and deliver better services,” Shumlin said.

The governor said his administration wants to continue to provide education opportunities to inmates, but the program is not currently providing that service in an efficient way.

“We’re not saying let’s not educate young people in prisons. What we’re saying is we’ve got 49 teachers that graduated 41 students this year. I don’t think there’s a Vermonter who would say, ‘Wow, that’s an efficient way to deliver education — 49 teachers, 41 graduates,’” Shumlin said. “All we’re saying is let’s find the areas where government isn’t being efficient and not always turn to taxpayers.”

Shumlin has told lawmakers and others that if they don’t like his proposals they should present their own that provide equal savings. So far, those ideas have not been forthcoming, he said.

“What is not OK is to say, ‘Just go out and raise taxes on Vermonters,’ and that’s what I’m hearing in the background here,” the governor said. “What they’re saying is, ‘Listen, don’t change anything. Don’t make government more efficient, just ask taxpayers to pay more.’ As governor, I’m not going to do that.”

Later in the day VSEA members gathered in the House Chamber to discuss the effects of the cuts. Leslie Matthews, an environmental scientist with the Agency of Natural Resources, said Shumlin is “extracting millions of dollars” from state workers.

“We’re here to say: No more cuts. Raise some revenue,” she said. 

The cuts to state services are on top of $10 million in labor savings that Shumlin hopes to achieve by renegotiating the contract with state workers. Workers are slated to receive a 2.5 percent cost of living increase and a resumption of “step increases” that would provide an average salary bump of 1.7 percent.

The budget gap should not be addressed by asking state workers to forgo negotiated pay raises, Matthews said.

“That crisis does not constitute an emergency on our part or obligate us to open up our contract that we bargained in good faith,” she said.

She asked lawmakers to “raise revenue from the people who can afford it.”

“We need to grow it from those people who have seen their income grow dramatically in recent years,” Matthews said. 

Shumlin maintains that he and legislative leaders are committed to achieving the $10 million in labor savings.

“The best way to do that would be if the union would come to the table and work cooperatively with us to find those savings,” Shumlin said. “We have to do it. There’s no choice. If you talk to legislative leadership, if you talk to me as governor, they’ll tell you, we cannot solve this budget challenge without getting some savings from our workforce.” 

The Shumlin administration has asked union officials to sit down and discuss the best way to achieve the savings. If the union does agree to some concessions, more than 400 state workers could be laid off, administration officials said last week.

So far, neither Shumlin nor his aides have provided any specific proposal to reduce labor costs. Those details should be worked out with the union, they said.

neal.goswami @rutlandherald.com