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A collision with reality Judge's ruling threatens unions with layoffs, new wage freeze

A judge's ruling that Buffalo city unions are entitled to immediate payment of all step increases deferred by the control board's wage freeze may not, in the end, be the victory that city workers believe it is. If the ruling is upheld on appeal, it will make a shambles of the city's and school district's four-year financial plans, creating the real possibility of a new and extended wage freeze.

That's the risk when devotion to process is slavish and no room is left for common sense. Be careful what you wish for.

It may not come to that, if control board members are right. They plan to appeal last week's ruling by State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek, confident that their interpretation of the law -- allowing the unions one step increase per year -- is correct.

If it isn't, the consequences would be serious, especially for the school district. Under its four-year plan, which presumes annual step increases, its finances barely remain stable. Add in a wallop like four years of step increases and the result will be to open a $90 million deficit in the budget, one whose bridging would, in all likelihood, require significant layoffs and program cuts. Students lose and teachers lose.

Union leaders counter that Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer has pledged additional increases in state aid, but that's a political promise that may be hard to keep. Spitzer also has promised not to raise taxes next year, but the state is facing a $4.3 billion budget deficit in 2008-09, and that gap -- which threatens any additional aid to Buffalo -- could widen.

Not that the big city unions have acknowledged it, but financial realities have a way of intruding on the dream world of inexhaustible resources. That was one of the reasons Buffalo got a control board in the first place -- as was Albany's weariness of funneling ever-increasing amounts of money to Buffalo, in a vain effort to save the city from itself.

This has been an agonizing several years for Buffalo's police officers, firefighters, teachers and other city employees. Costs have risen, especially at the gas pump, and without raises, it has to have been difficult maintaining a standard of living. But the city has clawed its way back toward balanced budgets, thanks largely to the wage freeze and spending cuts backed by the control board.

Unions point to a fragile and now apparently doomed surplus, which city leaders wanted to use to bolster reserves and gain better financial ratings for city borrowing, as a source of the $130 million the ruling is expected to cost the city and school district, combined, over the next four years. That surplus, in fact, was one reason the control board was able to end the wage freeze with the single-step plan.

If appeals courts uphold Michalek's ruling, there is a real risk a wage freeze will be reimposed, or workers will be laid off. The city is not out of the woods yet, and union members' future increases are not certain.

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