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Under a settlement approved Monday by the City Council, city firefighters will split more than $1.2 million as compensation for the city's decision to cut staffing levels over the past five years.

The agreement, approved 4-1, ends a fight between the city and the firefighters' union and, according to the fire chief, will provide safer working conditions at the city's five engine and two ladder-truck companies.

Mayor Vincenzo V. Anello's administration and Local 714, Niagara Falls Uniformed Fire Fighters Association, worked on the memorandum of agreement for months before it was presented to the Council.

The city has been involved in litigation with the union for years over the staffing levels, and Fire Chief Rick Horn told the Council the city would face another lawsuit if it rejected the agreement.

Since 1996, the city has cut more than 30 firefighters but kept the same number of fire engines and trucks on the road, resulting in unsafe conditions and more workers retiring on disability, Horn said.

Under the agreement, firefighters will receive reimbursement when they retire depending on the number of months they worked for the city between Jan. 1, 2000, and next Dec. 31. Those who worked during that period but have already retired will be paid within 180 days, a cost estimated at a little more than $100,000.

Firefighters who worked during the whole five years will receive a 38 percent increase in salary in their last year of service, while those with less time will receive about $274 for each month they were employed during that period.

Councilman Lewis "Babe" Rotella, whose motion to table the issue was defeated, voted against the agreement, saying he wanted more time to examine the reimbursements, which he considered too high.

Councilwoman Candra Thomason said she didn't want to risk another lawsuit.

"We don't have the money, but there was an impact there. We have to work smart from now on with the unions," she said.

Currently, staffing is not high enough per engine or truck, Horn said. "That's proven by injury rates, disability retirements and compensation costs."

To avert future staffing level shortages, the agreement calls for a minimum of four Fire Department members to be on duty for every engine company and three for every ladder-truck company, to be achieved incrementally by Jan. 1, 2007.

While the city faces penalties if it violates those staffing levels, Anello pointed out that the city can take engines or ladder-trucks that cannot be fully staffed off the road as long as the ones that are operating have enough Fire Department members.

"This is a symbol of better days ahead for firefighters and taxpayers," he said.


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