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Cities sidestep use of flaggers; Questions on safety, savings delay changes.

Byline: Shaun Sutner

WORCESTER - If you haven't seen one of the civilian flaggers whom state officials have been promoting with much fanfare recently, there's a reason.

Most cities and towns aren't using them. And they are probably missing out on millions of dollars in savings in the process.

Communities continue to rely on paid private police details to direct traffic and guard road construction and utility projects.

While the state's flagger program, unveiled amid a wave of publicity early last month, already has yielded some savings for the state Highway Department, it has largely been ignored at the local level.

That is because the measure, proposed by Gov. Deval L. Patrick and enacted by the Legislature last fall, only requires the state to use flaggers on projects on which it is the awarding authority, and then only on work sites that are considered to have low traffic volume at low speeds.

Cities and towns can opt out by passing a bylaw or ordinance mandating police-only details, or if use of police details is required in labor contracts.

However, some communities that have not specifically exempted themselves are still not using civilians. The Patrick administration determined that the use of civilian flaggers would save communities an average of 13 percent.

While hundreds of civilian flaggers already have received the required training, many cities and towns - including Central Massachusetts communities such as Worcester, Leominster, Shrewsbury and Southbridge - are still using police on road details nearly exclusively, even on quiet side streets and low-speed rural back roads. A few state-funded projects in the communities may see flaggers, including at a traffic signal installation in Leominster.

Officials in the Central Massachusetts communities maintain that the savings have been overstated. Because civilian flaggers, by law, earn the prevailing wage - from $32 to $37 an hour depending on region - it isn't worth abandoning a system they say has worked for them and has produced public safety benefits.

Police detail rates range from $32 to $42 an hour, according to a 2008 state Transportation Department study.

Advocates for police details argue that having an officer on the street deters crime and speeding and ensures a safe work site.

"We're not going to use them," said Southbridge Town Manager Christopher Clark, citing a local bylaw and collective bargaining agreement that states only police can work details. "It's not my responsibility to say whether I agree with it."

So Southbridge, which has more than $3 million in road improvement projects scheduled this construction season, including the reconstruction of North Woodstock Road and local streets, won't benefit from any savings by using flaggers.

Similarly, Leominster Mayor Dean J. Mazzarella said he hasn't been convinced that flaggers are cheaper. As a consequence, he added, "We haven't used them."

"The prices we've seen haven't been less expensive," he said.

Mr. Mazzarella, a former police officer, rejected arguments civilian flaggers save money because they wouldn't receive the guaranteed four-hour minimum shifts required by most police contracts.

"This is about public safety. People out on the street aren't even paying attention to police officers, let alone flaggers."

The savings issue has been somewhat controversial. Police unions found an ally in state Auditor A. Joseph DeNucci to back up their contention that flaggers are really no cheaper.

Mr. DeNucci in March issued a report finding that while flaggers would produce some savings through efficiencies, including the ability of flaggers to work on various parts of a project, the state's savings estimates of $5 million to $7 million were overstated. Also, he said, using civilian flaggers could result in more dangerous roads.

State transportation officials are sticking to their argument that civilian flaggers would save $5 million to $7 million per year - about a 13 percent savings - and contend that the cost of using flaggers will come down as more private companies bid on jobs.

In an interview, state Highway Commissioner Luisa M. Paiewonsky said savings from road flaggers so far this year have amounted to millions, and that 64 percent of all state-funded and awarded road projects are using civilian flaggers or mostly civilian flaggers. Of 38 projects now in the pipeline and ready to start work this summer or fall, 24 will exclusively use civilian flaggers, she said.

"We've already started to see substantial savings figures. And there's a lot more savings that will accrue," she said. "The real savings come from using flaggers as a managerial tool. We don't pay for more than are actually needed."

Officials in Worcester and Shrewsbury apparently don't agree with her on the financial benefits.

Around the state's second-largest city, uniformed police officers are still visible at every work site, from municipal street paving jobs on quiet side streets to utility repair locations and major road resurfacing projects. The union contract with the city requires use of police officers.

"The issue of police details versus civilian flaggers is simply about public safety," said Officer Edward T. Saucier, president of the police patrolmen's union.

"Whether it be in the city, or on a state-funded project anywhere in the state, if it requires any type of traffic control for the purpose of safety, that has to be done by a police officer," he said. "Only a police officer has the statutory authority to stop traffic, direct traffic against traffic controls (and) allow traffic to cross center lines."

In fiscal 2009, the city billed a total of $5.5 million for police details, about $1 million of that for public works projects. Going by the state savings formula, the city could have saved at least $130,000 by using civilian flaggers.

For now, the police will stay, officials say.

"People want to make it a black and white issue, but on certain main streets and side streets, a real police presence can calm traffic," said City Council Vice Chairman Frederick C. Rushton. "But are they needed on every street? No...

"The issue could be part of future contract negotiations."

In Shrewsbury, town officials are still operating under the status quo - that is, police only - even without a bylaw or contract provision that would bar them from employing flaggers.

"We haven't taken the issue up, nor do we have plans to," Town Manager Daniel J. Morgado said. "I haven't seen the value of it. We have a system that has worked very well for a long period of time."

But Ms. Paiewonsky, the highway commissioner, said that while state officials never envisioned many cities and towns opting into the new system right away, they may start to like it after they see it in action for a while.

"We expect our use of flaggers will be successful," she said. "They may want to wait and see if it works. It's up to them."

Contact Shaun Sutner by email at ssutner@telegram.com.

ART: PHOTOS; MAP; CHART

CUTLINE: (1) Flagger Molly Kelly holds a large stop sign along Route 62 in Hubbardston. Kelly is a college student. (2) Worcester police direct traffic through the intersection of Southbridge and Cambridge streets. (MAP) Area projects using civilian flaggers (CHART) Massachusetts civilian flaggers

PHOTOG: (1) T&G Staff/CHRISTINE PETERSON (2) T&G Staff/DAN GOULD (MAP, CHART) T&G Staff/DON LANDGREN JR.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 5, 2009
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