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Hope for a firefighter deal Tough negotiations lead to savings that could meet control board mandate

There are two steps in fighting a fire: The loud and dramatic way firefighters get to the scene, and the detailed and skilled business of actually putting the fire out. Firefighters and the city got to a contract with a dramatic finish this week, but there's a lot of detailed and skilled analysis still needed.

Because this fire is not yet extinguished, we offer no complete judgment as to the quality of the proposed new agreement between the City of Buffalo and its firefighters' union. On first blush, it has mixed impacts -- like most contracts -- for both the city and the firefighters.

Buffalo firefighters haven't had a raise since 2002 and, like other unions working for local government, have been subject to a wage freeze imposed by the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority since 2005. That board must approve the new settlement, as must the union membership. The Common Council approved the pact Tuesday in a 7-2 vote. The control board meets today, and if it approves, a union ratification vote would be held by mid-February.

The proof will be in the details, as they are analyzed by each of the principals and such worthies as the city comptroller's office. In return for an immediate $5,000 pay hike and annual 3.4 percent raises through 2012, there are firefighter concessions -- acceptance of a more typical city health care plan instead of the current gold-plated one with a cosmetic surgery rider, for instance.

There is a major restructuring of firefighter shifts and time off, with some leave and vacation givebacks. The city gets back some previously bargained-away managerial rights. There could be a huge advantage, for both the city and its taxpayers, if contract implementation delivers on its promise of better but fair controls that could curtail unwarranted sick time and injured-on-duty absences.

But the city's projected savings from resultant cuts in overtime and other staffing changes still are estimates that will be tested in practice, and although 29 of 37 union lawsuits will be dropped if the contract is signed, the big one -- which still could mandate retroactive pay cuts for the past four years -- remains open.

However the fine points are judged, though, the process looks to have been a large step in the right direction.

There was hard bargaining by both sides, described by some of the participants as "intense." That may have been an understatement. Both sides gave some and got some. And at least by Mayor Byron W. Brown's math, the taxpayers will save upwards of $7.5 million in reduced overtime and other costs, even after the higher pay is figured in, through 2011. Even if contract provisions are not ideal, that savings would meet the control board's criteria for approval.

There is hope that this contract, if ratified, will serve as another domino, following the recent agreement with the school district's engineers, for workable deals with other city unions to fall into place.

The results of such negotiations are the most important. But process matters. It can help everyone -- elected officials, appointed overseers, union workers and, most of all, the taxpayers -- to have confidence that the deals done were the best available or, at the very least, fair.

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