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Firefighters, city near 5 1/2-year accord Healthy raises, givebacks involved in deal needing Council, control board OK

Buffalo firefighters would see their salaries increase by more than 30 percent over the next 5 1/2 years under a proposed contract settlement that will be sent to the Common Council and control board for immediate consideration.

In return, negotiators said firefighters would agree to numerous cost-saving concessions, including insurance givebacks, changes in injured-on-duty policies and a rule that all firefighters hired in the future live in the city for their first 15 years on the job.

Mayor Byron W. Brown said the contract will save the city $7.5 million by 2011.

Brown and fire union officials capped off several months of negotiations Monday by announcing the proposed deal. If approved by the state panel that oversees city spending, the contract would give firefighters a $5,000 base salary increase effective Feb. 1, plus a 3.4 percent increase.

Firefighters would receive another 3.4 percent raise July 1, then identical 3.4 percent increases in each of the next four years.

When the increases are compounded, firefighters currently at the top scale of $51,072 would see their salaries increase to $68,263 by the final year of the contract in 2011-12.

Starting salaries for firefighters -- now, about $34,000 -- would increase to about $47,000 by that final year.

"This is a significant breakthrough that results from good-faith negotiations of both parties," Brown said.

Joseph E. Foley, president of the Buffalo firefighters union, called the negotiations "intense" and "dicey at times" but said the proposed pact is the best that could be negotiated, given the current control board constraints the city operates under.

"Even if we're not entirely happy with everything [in this contract], we know we're going forward," Foley said. "I hope our membership gives full consideration of the benefits of this agreement when it is presented to them."

Buffalo firefighters have been working without a contract and without a raise since 2002.

Fire Commissioner Michael S. Lombardo, who once sat on the union side in previous contract talks and was involved in protesting the city's downsizing of the Fire Department in 2003, also played a pivotal role in pulling together this pact. "Morale issues have been difficult," Lombardo said.

Council Majority Leader Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr. expects the proposed pact will be sent to committee at once with hopes the Council can move on it by week's end. "It's our responsibility to carefully review it and check how it affects our finances," he said. "But we'll probably call a meeting by the end of the week to approve it."

All city and school district employees have had their wages frozen by the control board since April 2004. The Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority has said it would consider lifting the wage freeze on a union-by-union basis, but only for those units that agree to contracts that end up saving the city more money than they cost.

Brown insisted the proposed deal with firefighters meets that requirement. "Even though we're spending, we're saving more than we're spending," he said.

An assistant to control board Executive Director Dorothy A. Johnson said she has yet to review the proposal and will withhold comment until then.

Bonifacio said it's a good sign that one of the city's largest unions and Brown administration officials have come to terms on a contract that appears to save money.

One contract provision would see the fire union waive a controversial health insurance rider that provides cosmetic surgery benefits. An expedited injured-on-duty process would also take effect that would more quickly return firefighters to work.

Other cost-saving concessions by the firefighters union include:

* Switching to a single provider health care plan.

* Surrendering 48 hours of paid vacation time and one personal paid day off.

* Changing management rights provisions governing scheduling and overtime.

* Requiring all new hires to be subject to a minimum 15-year residency in Buffalo.

"We are receiving a nice pay raise going forward, but we are in essence taking five years of zero going along with it," Foley said. "Under these conditions [with the control board in place], this is the best we could come up with."

Nearly four years ago, the city's police union ratified a contract that included the same raises that firefighters would receive. In return, officers agreed to go to one-person patrol cars and other concessions. They received $5,000 raises, plus a 3.4 percent increase. But the control board's wage freeze blocked subsequent 3.4 percent raises that were promised in the contract.

Robert P. Meegan, Buffalo Police Benevolent Association president, said firefighters should approach the deal cautiously.


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