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Maine Sheriff's Deputies to Picket for Higher Pay

Oxford County sheriff's deputies say they are among the lowest paid in the state. With a starting salary just under $15 an hour, they want a $3 an hour pay raise. The group has been working without a contract for two years and will picket in front of the South Paris courthouse tomorrow morning to draw attention to their situation.

Recently, the Teamsters Local 340  - the union representing Oxford County Sheriff's deputies - did a survey of the five surrounding counties to find out the average starting wage for a sheriff's deputy. Turns out that the average wage is about $3 an hour more than what deputies in Oxford County make.

And that's a fact that Deputy Michael Halacy finds very frustrating.  "Due to the fact that we're all trained exactly the same, we're all trained at the same academy, we all come out of it with the same certification - it shouldn't matter what side of the county you're on for equal pay, really," Halacy says.

It's been four years since Oxford County deputies have gotten a raise, and two years since they've had a contract. Their Teamsters union representative, Ray Cote, says pay raises shouldn't be a sticking point, given that the Oxford Casino pays the county 1 percent of its profits every week. That amounts to about $11,000.

"And the deputies are fully aware of this," Cote says. "They know the money is there, and they would like to get paid."

Cote says deputies also have increased workloads after the sheriff ended a call-sharing program with Maine State Police. Under that program, deputies busy handling one call could enlist state police for support when other calls came in. Now it can only be used for emergencies.

"But what it has done, it's left Oxford County undermanned," he says. "The deputies are having to work much harder. On occasion, they're having to answer calls without back up. And domestic disputes is something where they're compelled to have back-up because it can be such a dangerous situation."

Cote says deputies decided to picket to draw attention to their plight because contract negotiations have been unfruitful. And Oxford County Administrator Scott Cole agrees.

"The deputies have walked out several times from negotiations," Cole says, "so it's hard to have a conversation with someone when they're not there."

Cole says though the Oxford County deputies' pay may be below average, their health and retirement benefits are far superior. And that weekly money from the Oxford Casino? Cole says it's all going to tax relief. "Virtually all the money is going right back to the taxpayers. They think that's probably the preferred use."

Cole says concerns about workload are not falling on deaf ears, but he points out the county has hired more deputies in the past couple of years.

The situation in Oxford County is getting empathy from deputies and corrections officers in Androscoggin County, who have been without a pay raise and contract for a year and a half.

Sergeant Delbert Mason, president of the Androscoggin County Employees Association, says this spring they decided to draw attention to their situation by doing something else instead. "Our folks are growing facial hair if they choose to," he says,

Beards and goatees, Mason says, turn out to be a decent platform. He declined to give specific figures, but Mason says Androscoggin County law enforcement employees are asking for a reasonable cost of living wage increase. After months of negotiating, Mason says they are now moving toward binding arbitration.

But he points out this is the second time employees have grown facial hair due to contract issues. "Unfortunately, it's almost something I'm used to looking at now, because over the course of the last four years, I think people have had facial hair more than they haven't," hye says.

As for the Oxford County deputies, both the county and the deputies' union each say they hope to sit down soon to serious bargaining talks.