To spur Niagara County's unions to sign new contracts, the Legislature may give raises to non-union workers while talks continue.
Legislator Gerald K. Farnham, R-Lockport, made the suggestion at last week's meeting of the Administration Committee.
Farnham, the committee's chairman, said he wants his colleagues to consider the idea and discuss it at their next meeting Feb. 28.
Later in the week, Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield, endorsed the Farnham plan. "I think it's very fair, because we're holding these people hostage to the unions," Ross said. "I think we'll proceed in that direction."
But Edward McDonald, president of the county's blue-collar union, said legislators are mistaken if they think raises for county workers who receive flat salaries will inspire the unions to make deals.
"I don't care what the flats and salarieds get," said McDonald, president of Local 182, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Human Resources Director Peter P. Lopes said the pay scale for the county's 150 non-union employees, ranging from department heads to part-time attorneys, was last altered in 2003.
Customarily, the Legislature adjusts their salaries after reaching a deal with the Civil Service Employees Association, the white-collar union that represents more than half of the county's work force.
But both the CSEA unit and AFSCME local are in their fourth year of working under terms of contracts that expired at the end of 2002. CSEA members rejected a proposed contract in January 2004, while AFSCME hasn't had anything to vote on since its members refused in 2002 to reopen their health care benefit package.
"Maybe we should look at [raises for salaried employees] ahead of time," Farnham said. "We can set a level, a precedent. . . . It might help the negotiating team."
But Farnham also acknowledged, "We have to be careful about what we propose."
Legislator Renae Kimble, D-Niagara Falls, is reintroducing a resolution she first offered last fall, designating a lawmaker from each party to sit in on talks with CSEA as an "oversight team."
"It's been over three years with no contract. Something has to be done," Kimble said.
"No. We're in a different era now," Ross said. "When we went to a county manager form of government, we brought in a professional team."
County Manager Gregory D. Lewis, who heads the negotiating team, didn't return calls Friday seeking comment. Neither did Thomas J. Lafornia, CSEA unit president.
But Kimble said she opposes raises for salaried workers before the unions. "I think that can cause a lot of hard feelings. You're pitting employees against each other," she said.
McDonald said the atmosphere at AFSCME's bargaining sessions has improved in recent weeks. Some issues are being settled, he said, expressing confidence that "health care and wages will fall into place."
The next AFSCME bargaining session is scheduled for Wednesday, and McDonald said all six county unions are to meet with Lewis on March 16 to discuss a possible new countywide health package.