PARIS — A labor relations board is scheduled to establish disputed facts in contract negotiations between county officials and representatives of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office.

A three-member, fact-finding panel comprised of an employee, an employer and state-appointed neutral party will meet in a closed-door session Dec. 4.

County officials have requested the conference after ongoing negotiations to hammer out a new contract with the sheriff’s deputies ground to a halt, County Administrator Scott Cole said.

Deputies have been without a contract since it expired in December 2011 but are abiding its term and conditions. 

On July 15, the dispute came to a head after deputies picketed in the parking lot outside the county courthouse, saying they have not had a pay raise in four years. 

The two sides remain divided over wages, with deputies saying they are among the lowest paid in the neighboring counties, with county officials disputing the claim. Starting pay with the county is $14.97 an hour, the second lowest among five neighboring counties. Two of 19 deputies earn the bottom wage. Most earn more than $17 an hour.

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A message left with County Commissioner Caldwell Jackson, who oversees relations with the sheriff’s office, was not returned. 

The deal offered by county commissioners for an immediate $1 raise with two- and three-year increases falls short of the $3 raise with 3 percent increases in years two and three that deputies requested, according to Teamsters Local 340 representative Ray Cote. A call to the sheriff’s deputies’ shop steward was not returned.

“Though the fact-finders’ decision isn’t binding, hopefully the parties can come to a mutual agreement,” Cote said.

Once the fact-finders make a determination, there is a 30-day “cooling off” period in which parties are encouraged to negotiate but are prohibited from speaking publicly, according to Maine Labor Relations Board Executive Director Marc Ayotte.

Parties are encouraged to mediate after the panel issues its written recommendation, but negotiations could go to arbitrators should no deal be struck. Arbitrators are encouraged but not bound to abide by the fact-finders report when it comes to wages, pensions and insurance, Ayotte said. 

“What usually happens is they bring the mediator back and make a deal. Not many cases get scheduled for arbitration,” Ayotte said.

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Typically, the panel will “narrow the field” by establishing the two sides’ main contentions, he said.

In determining their recommendation, the panel — comprised of lawyers — will take into consideration the terms and conditions of comparable collective bargaining agreements, such as the wages and benefits paid to deputies in neighboring counties, and how well the parties have coexisted without an updated contract, he said. 

Cote noted that they would have liked to reach an agreement before now to put those wages into effect. 

“I’m going to lay out the facts that my contention is deputies haven’t had a raise in four years, and they’re way behind the Oxford County region. The benefits package I think we both agree on, but the wages are the huge issue. They go out and put bulletproof vests on.” 

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