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Council delays action on fire union pact

The Common Council on Friday delayed action on a new contract with the fire union amid concerns about a residency rule for new firefighters and the pact's projected savings.

Lawmakers said their fiscal analyst is reviewing the contract to verify it will save the city $8 million by 2012, even though firefighters' salaries would increase by more than 30 percent over 5 1/2 years.

But lawmakers said Friday's delay should not be interpreted as a sign that their support for the contract is waning. The Council will reconvene its meeting at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, and most lawmakers predicted the agreement will be approved.

"Sometimes good stew takes a little bit of cooking," said Council President David A. Franczyk, who said he still supports the pact. But Franczyk and several others said the brief delay made sense so a few issues could be clarified. They include Franczyk's concern that newly hired firefighters might be able to easily circumvent a rule that would require them to live in Buffalo for at least 15 years.

"You can have multiple addresses and still live in Orchard Park," he said, adding he wants assurances the contract language is strong enough to prevent such abuses. City Hall's top lawyer provided that guarantee. Alisa M. Lukasiewicz said under the agreement, new firefighters couldn't just establish a mailing address in Buffalo. Mayor Byron W. Brown agreed, but he stressed he has no problem with lawmakers waiting until next week to vote on a contract.

Control board Chairman Brian J. Lipke paid a visit to City Hall on Friday afternoon to meet with Brown and other administration officials. While stopping short of endorsing the contract, Lipke reiterated that it's a "step in the right direction." He said there are lingering issues to address and wouldn't predict whether the board will vote on the pact at its Wednesday meeting.

Finance Commissioner Janet Penksa said she is eager to work through the numbers with the Council and demonstrate how various union concessions will save millions of dollars. The givebacks range from firefighters surrendering 48 hours of paid vacation time and one personal paid day off to changes in health insurance coverage. The city could get firefighters more involved in enforcing building codes.

Another Council concern involves a contract change that would allow the fire commissioner to temporarily close a fire station if more than seven firefighters call in sick on a specific shift. Franczyk said a legal question has surfaced as to whether this clause would be considered diminishing the Council's power. Currently, the Council has the power to authorize firehouse closings.

But some Council members said they were prepared to approve the contract Friday. "I'm ready to get it done," said Demone Smith of Masten, the Council's newest representative.

Brian C. Davis of Ellicott, who chairs the Finance Committee, said he has reviewed the pact and is convinced it's a "win" for the city, the union and residents.

The control board and the fire union also must ratify the contract.

The contract would increase firefighters' base salaries by $5,000 and also provide a 3.4 percent raise. Another 3.4 percent increase would kick in July 1, followed by 3.4 percent raises in each of the next four years.


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