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UNION WORKERS DROWN OUT LEGISLATORS

About 150 union workers and their supporters shouted down two Niagara County legislators Tuesday as they tried to hold a news conference attacking taxpayer-funded cosmetic surgery for employees.

Majority Leader Malcolm A. Needler and Legislator Richard E. Updegrove couldn't make themselves heard as the rotunda of the County Courthouse, an echo chamber at the best of times, was filled with a deafening din.

The members of the Civil Service Employees Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees chanted slogans and waved signs as the Republican legislators, who had no loudspeakers, waited in front of a lineup of their majority caucus colleagues.

The workers weren't defending cosmetic surgery; they were demanding new contracts and defending Mount View Health Facility, the county-owned nursing home, which is on the selling block.

The CSEA and AFSCME contracts expired at the end of 2002, and they contain a health-care package that includes coverage for elective cosmetic surgery. It has cost the county more than $3.67 million since 2001, including $932,000 last year.

The benefit can't be dislodged until the county and the unions settle a new contract, but negotiations aren't progressing.

"If they don't want to listen to us at the bargaining table, they'll listen to us tonight," said Edward McDonald, president of AFSCME Local 182.

On occasion, the chanting of "Save Mount View" and "We want a contract" would stop long enough for Needler and Updegrove to begin to talk, but after a few seconds someone would heckle them and the chanting would start again.

"I think you ought to admit the legislators put elective cosmetic surgery on the table, not the unions," shouted James Briggs, negotiator for the Probation Officers' Association, which also has the benefit and whose contract expired Dec. 31.

"We readily acknowledge that," Updegrove said. "Just because an item is negotiated doesn't mean that, one, it's right, and two, it shouldn't be revisited."

"We're asking that the unions consider the attitude of the residents of the county," Updegrove said in an interview after the abortive news conference.

"This wasn't about saving taxpayers money. This is about grandstanding in an election year," said Candy Saxon, chief negotiator for the CSEA.

Updegrove said the Legislature won't accept a contract that includes cosmetic surgery, but he also said he plans to introduce no suggestions for removing it.

Two such suggestions, offered Tuesday by Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, were referred to committee. One would take all money for cosmetic surgery out of the pool of money set aside for union raises in case new contracts are signed. The other would ban the use of paid sick days for plastic surgery.

On another topic, the Legislature approved a bond issue of almost $11.6 million to borrow money for 20 years to carry out a program of building renovations at Niagara County Community College.

The Legislature also made a formal request for a special state law allowing it to transfer ownership of 50 acres of land on Day Road to the Town of Lockport for use as a town park. The town leased the land three years ago.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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