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Control board chief heartened by talks

The head of Buffalo's control board is encouraged that city negotiators and fire union leaders reached agreement on a tentative contract, but he said the panel will only approve the deal if it's convinced the plan will save money.

Brian J. Lipke, chairman of the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority, said the control board must dissect the complex agreement to make sure "the savings are real."

"This is definitely moving in the right direction, but we have to verify the numbers," Lipke said Tuesday. "We have to verify that those savings are real."

City and union negotiators insist that Buffalo could raise firefighters' salaries by more than 30 percent over the next 5 1/2 years and still save $7.5 million through 2011.

The contract includes numerous givebacks, including health insurance concessions, reductions in paid vacation and changes in injured-on-duty policies. Other concessions include changing management rights policies involving scheduling and overtime.

Lipke noted that many of the proposed givebacks address concerns that the control board has red-flagged in the past.

Lipke said he's not sure whether the control board will be able to address all issues and vote on the proposed deal at its meeting next Wednesday. A lot will hinge on how much documentation the city can give the panel, he said. City officials will have to prove that the savings are "certain," not based on speculation or shaky projections, he stressed.

The control board froze the wages of all city and school district workers in 2005. Firefighters have been working without a raise since 2002.

The deal would not give firefighters any retroactive raises for prior years. But they would receive an immediate $5,000 base salary increase, plus a 3.4 percent increase. They 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.

Lipke noted that the control board has said it's willing to lift the wage freeze on a union-by-union basis, but only for those unions that agree to concessions that save more money than the cost of any raises.

Some proposed givebacks in the agreement include switching to a single health insurance provider, giving up a rider that provides cosmetic surgery benefits and requiring all new hires to live in the city for at least 15 years after they become firefighters.

The contract still faces approval by members of the fire union.

Union President Joseph E. Foley said he realizes firefighters won't be pleased with all provisions, but he's hopeful they will "give full consideration of the [pact's] benefits."

Meanwhile, the Common Council has scheduled a special Budget Committee meeting today to review the contract. Council leaders are hoping to vote on the deal by Friday.


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