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Niagara County and the Police Benevolent Association are close to a contract settlement after five hours of talks in the County Attorney's office Friday, the union leader said.

"We're not quite there yet, but we're close," Capt. James R. Meierer said after the session. "We made some economic progress. We made a lot of non-economic progress."

County Attorney Edward P. Perlman, who led the county's team for the first time, agreed. "We've made some significant progress toward a settlement. We will definitely meet again within two weeks."

The union, which represents 130 sheriff's deputies and investigators, has been working under terms of a contract that ran out at the end of 1997. The deputies have the lowest salaries of any full-time police officers in Niagara County and have been seeking significant raises. Neither side has disclosed the specifics of their negotiating positions.

In prior sessions, with the county's negotiating team headed by then-Assistant County Attorney Richard J. Rotella, went poorly, and deputies have picketed the last two County Legislature meetings and also demonstrated last Friday outside the restaurant owned by Legislator Gerald R. DeFlippo, R-Lockport, chairman of the Human Resources Committee.

Meierer said the union is encouraged by the participation of Perlman and Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein, who sat in Friday for the second time.

"When you have the county attorney and the sheriff at the table, a lot of things can be settled because they don't have to check with anyone," Meierer said.

The deputies brought only their 10-member negotiating team to the session and did not invite their lawyer, W. James Schwan. Meierer said Schwan would be attending the next session, the week of Sept. 20.

Perlman said, "They wanted time to review our economic proposals. We reviewed all their economic proposals, and we reviewed their non-economic proposals -- all of them, which hadn't been done before (Friday)."

Meierer said Beilein's presence was a key factor in being able to discuss issues such as scheduling and vacation time.

Perlman said the tone of the talks was "very amicable. We respect the work the deputies do for the county, and I think they respect our position on being fiscally responsible toward the taxpayers."

Perlman offered to enter the talks on Tuesday, when he intercepted Meierer in the Courthouse rotunda moments before Meierer was to address the Legislature during its public comment period. Meierer accepted Perlman's request not to speak at that meeting.

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