If a judge rules in two weeks that city employees must be placed on the salary steps they would have achieved had Buffalo's control board not imposed a wage freeze, city and school district officials claim there will be devastating fiscal fallout.
But union attorneys point to bulging surpluses as they accuse the city and its school district of crying poor-mouth.
A small army of attorneys staged a two-hour verbal duel Wednesday in a downtown courtroom. State Supreme Cout Justice John A. Michalek heard from lawyers representing seven unions, as well legal experts from the city, the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority and the School Board.
The key question involves a decision to allow workers to move only one step up the salary tier even if they missed multiple step-increases during the 38-month period when wages were frozen. The control board lifted the freeze this summer, citing improvements in the city's fiscal health.
Unions insist the control board only has the power to suspend raises. By preventing employees from getting all the step increases they missed, labor attorneys claim, it amounts to an illegal cancellation of promised raises.
Lawyers haggled over language in state law, with control board attorney A. Vincent Buzard maintaining that salary steps missed during the freeze cannot accrue or accumulate. Matthew C. Van Vessem made the same argument, saying a wage freeze is exactly what it sounds like.
"No movement is possible. When you're frozen, you're frozen," he said.
Robert J. Reddin, an attorney for the city's white-collar union, addressed assertions that employees should view a one-step increase as "better than nothing." He likened it to an armed robber snatching $100 from someone, then handing back $20.
"We're entitled, your honor, to a complete lifting [of the wage freeze]," he said.
City officials have argued that placing all its employees on the higher salary tiers would have "potentially ruinous" effects on efforts to stabilize finances. James Schmit, a School Board attorney, said the same is true for the board. He said such a move would cost the district $100 million in additional costs over four years.
"We would have to slash programs and personnel, there's no ifs ands or buts about it," he told the judge.
But Andrew D. Roth, an attorney for the Buffalo Teachers Federation and three other school district unions, branded the dire predictions "disingenuous." He said the School Board has racked up a record fund balance.
Police union attorney W. James Schwan also challenged arguments that the city can't afford additional salary costs, noting that it plans to hire up to 100 new officers within a few months.
"How do you hire police officers if there's an inability to fund them?" Schwan asked.
The fire union is also in court to challenge the impact of the wage freeze.
Michalek said he will issue a decision Nov. 14.