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The pace of negotiations for a contract between the county and its sheriff's deputies is about to pick up.

County Attorney Edward P. Perlman and Sheriff's Capt. James Meierer set up a face-to-face meeting during a conversation in the Courthouse rotunda during Tuesday's County Legislature meeting.

Meierer, president of the Niagara County Police Benevolent Association, was signed up to speak at the public comment period of the Legislature meeting, but he said Perlman intercepted him and asked him not to speak.

Perlman and Meierer agreed to a meeting next week.

"I'll set a whole day aside," Perlman said. That date is expected to be chosen today. It will be his first participation in the talks.

Meierer said: "I hope it's a step in the right direction. If this doesn't pan out, we'll all go nuts."

The deputies are not allowed to strike, under state law, and, unlike city police and fire departments, they do not have the right to binding contract arbitration.

About 40 deputies picketed before the Legislature meeting to demand a contract. Legislator John W. Cole III, D-Lockport, a retired sheriff's investigator, at one point carried a sign and marched with his former colleagues.

Meierer said he would likely bring his entire 10-member negotiating team to next week's meeting. He said the session will be an informal discussion without the state Public Employment Relations Board mediator who has been assigned to the case.

"We'll even do it without our lawyer," Meierer said.

Perlman said he wasn't sure who would accompany him on the county side of the talks.

Legislator Gerald R. DeFlippo, R-Lockport, the chairman of the Legislature's Human Resources Committee, said he thought a negotiating session held Thursday produced progress. He was surprised, therefore, when the deputies picketed his Lockport restaurant the next night.

Meierer said there will be a lot more picketing if talks don't speed up and reach a settlement.

He said Thursday's session was not productive from his viewpoint.

Neither side is allowed to discuss numbers under terms of the PERB mediation, but the deputies, by far the lowest-paid police officers in the county, are known to be seeking a substantial raise.

Perlman said his involvement should not be construed as making the talks more serious.

"I think negotiations have always been serious. There's a commitment on both sides to reach a collective-bargaining agreement," he said. "There's definitely been progress made in the last couple of weeks."

Meanwhile, county Human Resources Director Albert T. Joseph said the Deputy Sheriffs Association, which represents jail employees and dispatchers, agreed to the county's financial offer Thursday, but non-economic issues still need to be settled.

He would not release the salary terms of the deal.

The jail employees as well as the roughly 130 deputies have been working without a contract since the end of 1997.

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