EDITORIALS

Be nice to toll takers

Posted Nov. 27, 2011, at 11:13 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 28, 2011, at 4:46 p.m.
Peter Mills, acting executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, stands by the facility in Portland on June 1, 2011. Mills has been on the job for less than three months and has taken away credit cards from employees, changed the bidding process on contracts and sees much more to be done at the agency that oversees the 109-mile Maine Turnpike.
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Peter Mills, acting executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, stands by the facility in Portland on June 1, 2011. Mills has been on the job for less than three months and has taken away credit cards from employees, changed the bidding process on contracts and sees much more to be done at the agency that oversees the 109-mile Maine Turnpike.

Motorists have been insulting, cursing and even threatening the people who operate the toll booths on the Maine Turnpike. Their chief complaint is the news that the operators make unusual triple-time pay for working on 12 holidays including the day after Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King’s birthday. They also resent a planned toll increase of perhaps 25 percent in 2013.

They got this information from news reports that the new turnpike director, Peter Mills, appointed by the Maine Turnpike Authority board of trustees, wants to cut back triple time and some other provisions in negotiations for a new three-year contract.

Generous provisions like triple time were negotiated by the previous director, Paul Violette, who resigned in March under a cloud. An investigation disclosed his lavish spending and financial misconduct. He may have been an easy negotiator to head off insider criticism of his own since-reported misuse of turnpike funds.

A union negotiator, Brian Oelberg, said that Mr. Violette was a “generous” director. But he added that, while the employees are willing to make some concessions, they should not suffer from any of Mr. Violette’s wrongdoing.

Mr. Mills is trying to cut back far more than just payroll costs. He must prepare for paying on bonds for the $165 million 2004 widening job from York to South Portland and other capital projects. He has eliminated the position of deputy director, absorbing those duties into his own job, which pays $104,000 — 20 percent less than Mr. Violette was paid. He has changed to competitive bidding for many goods and services, cut back on travel sponsorships and reduced by 40 percent the underwriting costs for the next bond issue.

Among the labor provisions he wants to eliminate, as he told MaineToday, are triple pay for working holidays, longevity bonuses for longtime employees and the ability to “cash out” unused vacation and sick pay. He also seeks to reduce the employer contribution for dependent health care benefits from the present 85 percent. Employees get 100 percent. The state now pays 60 percent for dependents.

The current contract has provided for a 3.25 percent pay increase every year for the past three years. Mr. Mills has offered a pay increase for the third year in exchange for a pay freeze for the first two years and acceptance of the proposed concessions.

Mr. Oelberg says such a deal would mean a 10 percent cut in pay and benefits for some workers and would be hard to sell to the union members. Instead, his team has offered a three-year wage freeze in exchange for preserving the rest of the current contract.

Negotiations continue. The present contract expires Dec. 31. Its terms will remain in effect if no agreement is reached by then.

Meanwhile, those toll booth operators are just doing their job. There’s no reason to blame them for trying to hold on to past gains. Courtesy beats curses.

CORRECTION:

An early version of this editorial erred in stating that acting Maine Turnpike Authority Director Peter Mills was appointed by Gov. LePage. He was appointed by the MTA board of trustees.

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