BARRE — More than two months after contracts with a pair of municipal labor unions expired negotiators have backed away from the bargaining table in an effort to make progress.

Characterized by City Manager Steve Mackenzie as “a brief timeout,” the decision was driven by a desire to make meaningful headway in separate negotiations with unionized firefighters and clerical and custodial staff.

“What we want to do is make the next session – and hopefully no more than two – productive,” Mackenzie said, suggesting the city’s negotiating team had “homework” to do following a summer spent negotiating with both unions.

Though there have been some glitches along the way, Mackenzie said bargaining teams for both sides had sought to stick to the every other Wednesday negotiating schedule that was set when ground rules were agreed to in May.

For Mackenzie and other members of the city’s negotiating team that has required a weekly Wednesday afternoon commitment that started on June 5 when they traded proposals with representatives of the firefighters’ union. With at least one notable exception, city negotiators have met one Wednesday with firefighters and the next with representatives of the clerical and custodial staff before repeating that cycle through most of the summer.

However, Mackenzie said this week talks with both bargaining units were suspended last month.

Negotiations with clerical and custodial staff have been on hold since Aug. 7 — the fourth face-to-face meeting with members of that bargaining unit. The city’s negotiating team has met six times with representatives of the firefighters union — most recently on Aug. 14.

Mackenzie said talks with both unions should soon resume.

A Sept. 11 session with firefighters is awaiting confirmation and Mackenzie said he expects to have a date with clerical and custodial staff locked down in coming weeks.

Notwithstanding incremental progress, Mackenzie said the break was viewed as an opportunity to meaningfully move the ball in negotiations with two of the city’s four labor unions.

“We felt it was better to take some more time now and try to put on the table some refined proposals so we can make more progress in the next meeting or two,” he said, suggesting he is optimistic that can happen.

The alternative?

“We find out that we really can’t get close and we have to figure out what the next step is,” he said.

Already two months into a contract year for which projected pay raises and benefits were fixed several months ago, the city is on the verge of preparing a budget for what would be the second year of both yet-to-be-negotiated contracts.

Mackenzie said he is mindful of that uncertainty and hoping to secure settlements with both unions well before the budget season concludes.

Though Mackenzie declined to discuss the substance of negotiations his cautious optimism at this stage suggests agreements could be within reach.

“I’m hopeful,” he said.

At the outset of negotiations Mackenzie predicted it would be clear at this point whether the assistance of a mediator would be required. That remains a possibility, but it isn’t where things stand at this point.

The best-case scenario from the city’s perspective is that settlements are reached with both bargaining units even as negotiations with a third get underway. Unionized members of the city’s public works department are working under a contract that expires Dec. 31. Negotiations with that union could begin as early as next month.

Meanwhile, unionized members of the city’s police department are now in the second year of a two-year labor agreement that was ratified in January – six months after the previous contract expired. That agreement runs through June 30, 2020.

david.delcore @timesargus.com

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