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City Hall employees may get gym

Claiming that a healthier work force would help to improve Buffalo's bottom line, Mayor Byron W. Brown's administration may install a fitness center in City Hall.

But recognizing the nasty debate that ensued last year after Erie County launched an ill-fated effort to set up a gym in the Rath County Office Building, the city hopes to create its facility using few -- if any -- public funds.

The costs could be absorbed by Buffalo's health insurer, said City Human Resources Commissioner Leonard A. Matarese. He added that even if the plan requires the city to foot a modest part of the tab, it would be a shrewd long-term investment. Some employee wellness programs in the private sector have shown that for every dollar spent, there's a far greater return through reduced sick time, increased productivity and lower health care costs.

"The healthier our employees are, the lower our health insurance costs will be," said Matarese.

There's plenty of empty space in City Hall, especially since Buffalo's work force has shrunk by more than 25 percent since 2001. The biggest challenge, Matarese said, would involve the installation of showers. That's why the city is also exploring the option of hatching a contract with a private company that would give access to city employees at an off-site fitness center.

But some health advocates think a facility situated inside City Hall would likely get more employees to exercise.

Would BlueCross BlueShield, the city's health insurer, be willing to finance the costs of a City Hall fitness center? Spokeswoman Karen Merkel-Liberatore said the provider has worked closely with the city on numerous employee wellness initiatives in recent years.

"We have not yet addressed a fitness center and a potential role in this," she said. "But certainly our conversations do continue as far as [the city's] wellness needs."

Brown encouraged human resources officials to look into enhancing employee wellness programs shortly after he took office in 2006, Matarese said. City officials are aware of a controversy last year that eventually spurred county officials to scuttle plans to use a state grant to create a gym in the Rath Building. Critics said spending $128,000 to create a facility workers could use free was poorly timed, given the county's fiscal woes.

Matarese said people need to understand that such programs save money in the long run.

"It's the 'we're afraid to spend a dollar to save 10' mentality," he said.

As health insurance costs increase, the executive director of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo & Western New York said municipalities must promote more healthy work forces.

"Doing nothing is putting your head in the sand," Phil Haberstro said.

He noted the city already has exercise facilities in police stations and firehouses that were financed through grants from a foundation and the federal government.

Setting up fitness centers in City Hall and in Buffalo's Broadway Garage, the operations base for hundreds of Streets Sanitation workers, is a logical next step, he said. He thinks the city should seek control board permission to use state efficiency grants to help finance employee wellness initiatives.

"Municipal governments need to invest in these programs as cost management tools," Haberstro said.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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