By Prudence Brighton
Selectmen last week unanimously approved collective-bargaining agreements with the patrolmen's union that Town Manager Jim Duggan called a well-deserved deal that has been "a long time coming."
Officers, on average, will see pay increases totaling 18 percent over the next three years. The deal covers about 30 uniformed patrolmen, not including superior officers.
The current average salary for a Dracut police officer is about $53,000. At the end of the contract, that will rise to about $63,000.
Police officers, Duggan said, were so woefully underpaid that many were seeking transfers to other communities with higher pay scales -- so many, in fact, that Duggan put a moratorium on such "lateral transfers."
"I will defend these contracts all day," Duggan said. "The town has not been competitive in paying the industry standard, and now it is."
In addition to better pay, officers are better trained and are being held more accountable. Official accreditation from state officials is on the horizon, and that is the primary goal, Duggan said.
Two contracts were before selectmen for approval.
The first covers fiscal 2018, which ended last June 30. The second covers fiscal years 2019-2021.
A contract cannot extend more than three years, so two contracts were necessary.
The pay raises will be retroactive to July 1, 2018.
Duggan said it was a long process to reach the agreements, but they send "a clear message to our public-safety officers that they do a great job.
A 2016 MRI audit of the Dracut Police Department showed "years of neglect" and systemic issues within the agency. Unless pay scales were addressed, the Police Department would see difficulty in retaining officers and recruiting new ones, it said.
For Duggan, the new labor agreements bring the Police Department in line with current standards.
"We've made great strides in this contract," he said. "It gives us a solid foundation and benchmark to build on and to show we appreciate them and support them."
Duggan, who is nearing the five-year mark as town manager, spearheaded a reorganization of the department. He said that commercial and industrial development in the town over the last four years has enabled the town to make "an investment in public safety."
He credited Police Chief Peter Bartlett for his work in turning the department around. Bartlett was hired 18 months ago. For his part, Bartlett said it's an honor to sit at the bargaining table with his officers.
The new contracts carry a price tag of $560,000, Duggan said. The package also improves education and other benefits.
Selectman Joe DiRocco, the town's former fire chief, applauded the agreement, saying, "It puts us more in line with other communities and shows we have a commitment to their future with this town."
Selectmen Jesse Forcier and Allison Hughes agreed, as they voted unanimously to ratify the deals.
Selectman Tami Dristiliaris, Duggan's most ardent critic, who opposed a raise for the manager in late January, did not attend meeting. Selectmen Anthony Archinski, meanwhile, abstained from voting due to his position with the New England Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents the town's patrolmen.