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Council approves contract with firefighters

Firefighters will continue to push for millions of dollars in back pay even if Buffalo's control board approves a contract that would raise their salaries by more than 30 percent over the next 5 1/2 years.

Union President Joseph Foley said he "vehemently disagrees" with city negotiators' claim that the tentative pact renders moot firefighters' pending legal fight for retroactive raises in 2002 and 2003.

Foley made the comments to The Buffalo News on Tuesday, shortly before the Common Council voted, 7-2, to approve the contract. Lawmakers praised city bargainers for negotiating a deal that fiscal analysts claim will save the city between $7.5 million and $8.2 million through 2012.

If the fire union approves the pact, firefighters would receive raises in return for major concessions that include health insurance givebacks, changes in overtime policies, new rules involving injured-on-duty status and a requirement that newly hired firefighters live in the city for at least 15 years.

The control board is expected to discuss the agreement today. Control board officials did not return calls to comment.

In voting for the agreement, some Council members hailed the fact that it includes the settlement of 29 long-festering legal fights.

"But firefighters have preserved their rights in two major lawsuits," Foley said.

One involves an arbitration battle in which the union is seeking the retroactive raises. City negotiators have argued that because the new pact is effective July 1, 2002, it would take away any validity to the union's push for back pay in that fiscal year and in 2003.

Foley stressed that the union will continue to pursue back pay.

By some estimates, an adverse ruling could cost the city about $10 million.

The second lawsuit that fire union leaders refused to settle as part of the agreement involves a union fight for $11 million in back penalties plus future remuneration at time-and-a-half for compensatory time worked by firefighters.

In approving the contract Tuesday, Council members did not challenge Mayor Byron W. Brown's proposed savings projections or raise concerns about pending lawsuits. Instead, the Council spent more than an hour debating whether the residency rule was strong enough and whether the agreement diminishes lawmakers' powers by giving the fire commissioner the right to temporarily close a fire company if more than seven firefighters call in sick on a shift.

Council President David A. Franczyk and South Council Member Michael P. Kearns voted against the contract, unsatisfied with assurances given by Corporation Counsel Alisa A. Lukasiewicz and Jeffrey Swiatek, a private attorney who helps the city in labor cases.

Both lawyers insisted that the proposed agreement has enough teeth to ensure that newly hired firefighters will be forced to actually live in the city -- not just have a Buffalo mailing address. And they repeatedly assured the Council that it would retain its charter-given right to authorize the closing of any fire company, even if it's a temporary closing.

Kearns reprimanded the Brown administration for not including the Council in talks.

"If Council leadership had been involved in negotiations, these concerns could have been brought up sooner," he said.

Kearns also predicted that firefighters will reject the agreement, saying he has been visiting firehouses and has witnessed overwhelming opposition.

But before the agreement is sent to firefighters for a vote, the control board would have to approve it.

Brown, who sits on the panel, has expressed hope that the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority will approve the contract today. He said that while the agreement would cost the city $40 million through June 2012, that will be more than offset by savings of at least $47.5 million.

The pact 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.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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