Buffalo's control board unanimously approved a contract Wednesday that, if ratified by a union, would raise firefighters' salaries in return for major concessions.
But dozens of angry firefighters who attended the meeting booed the board's action and predicted the union will overwhelmingly reject the pact on Feb. 14. Some said they think union President Joseph E. Foley made a mistake when he signed it.
Under the proposed contract, most firefighters would see their salaries increase by 33 percent over the next five years. Most are currently at the top scale of $51,072, and they would make $68,263 in the 2011-2012 fiscal year. The first increases would kick in this year, including a $5,000 increase in base salary, a 3.4 percent raise this month, and another 3.4 percent raise in July.
But firefighters who showed up at Wednesday's control board meeting insisted the contracts' givebacks far exceed the value of the raises. They cited concessions in health insurance, new overtime restrictions and vacation givebacks. The agreement also would revise injured-on-duty policies.
City negotiators said the pact will save as much as $8 million by 2012, even with the raises.
"They gutted our contract," said Michael McCarthy, who joined the Fire Department 25 years ago. "This should be shot down, because it's the worst contract I've ever come across in my life."
"We're not going to accept this just because they throw out a bunch of money -- not with all the givebacks," said Philip Zajdowicz, a 19-year department veteran. "We've already made concessions in our family environments and our households. We've done it for 5 1/2 years. We can wait a little bit longer."
Control board Chairman Brian J. Lipke defended the agreement.
"I believe this is a mutually beneficial contract," Lipke said. "I'm happy that this is an opportunity to lift the wage freeze."
Mayor Byron W. Brown denied Foley's allegation that the control board meddled in talks just as negotiations were wrapping up.
"There was no involvement [by the control board], and I insisted that there be no involvement," said Brown. "It's the city's responsibility to negotiate contracts."
Foley wouldn't predict whether firefighters will approve the pact, but he said union bargainers tried their hardest.
"This was the best deal the city was offering, and it's the first time in five years [firefighters] have received a contract with money involved so they can vote on it," Foley said. "If it fails, it fails. We'll just keep going forward with all of our fights."
Firefighters didn't hide their anger over the control board's insistence that the cost of salary increases be more than offset by savings in other areas.
"The control board got greedy, and it's going to come back and haunt them. Because we're not going to accept this. Not a chance," said Philip Ryan, a firefighter for 29 years.
But control board vice chair Alair Townsend said concessions are a necessity.
"These are not normal times, are they? This isn't status quo here in Buffalo. The city was in very, very bad shape," Townsend said.
Lipke hit on the same theme, saying people must realize that "things have changed." He said the city has faced the same fiscal turmoil that forced many industries to make sweeping changes.
"Contracts that were once negotiated in good faith are simply not affordable any more," Lipke said.
City negotiators insisted the policy revisions in the contract will make operations more efficient.
For example, they estimate the new policies will save at least $12.5 million in the time-off for firefighters. Last fiscal year, firefighters used about 2,100 days of sick time, according to the budget office. Departmental overtime cost nearly $5.1 million last year. Currently, 71 firefighters are out due to work-related injuries, including 61 on long-term leave, Fire Commissioner Michael S. Lombardo said.
One contract clause would require all newly hired firefighters to live in the city for at least 15 years. Residency was a key issue when the Common Council considered the contract Tuesday. Lawmakers approved the pact in a 7-2 vote, but critics claimed there's a loophole in the residency rule that will doom enforcement.
The control board also unanimously approved a new contract with the Buffalo Public Schools' operating engineers. Some billed it as historic, saying it's the first time the control board's three-year-old wage freeze will be lifted for a union as the result of a negotiated contract.
The 66-member engineers union approved the pact this month, as did the Board of Education. It trades pay increases for longer school days, acceptance of single-carrier health insurance and other concessions that will save the school district $850,000 a year.
The 90-minute extension of the engineers' work day will keep schools open for activities, including extracurriculars. Members of Local 409, International Union of Operating Engineers will receive 2 percent raises in each of the next three years, along with a $5,000 increase in base salaries this year.