LOCKPORT – Niagara County Attorney Claude A. Joerg prevented the County Legislature from voting on a budget amendment that would have granted pay raises to most of the county’s unionized employees, asserting it would have been illegal.
Joerg’s opinion, which he said he obtained from the county’s labor law firm, touched off a violent argument late Tuesday between him and the Democratic legislators, who proposed to restore the annual “step increases” for union workers.
But the amendment was ruled out of order, and the pay freeze for union members will continue into a third year.
The 11 members of the Republican majority who attended the meeting voted down all the other budget amendments proposed by the Democrats without debating them, silently raising their hands to vote “no.”
The result was that the budget was barely altered from the tentative spending plan that County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz submitted Nov. 15. Instead of a 0.52 percent reduction in the tax levy, the final figure was a 0.55 percent reduction.
The only changes were three alterations proposed by department heads. The Sheriff’s Office abolished one sergeant position and replaced it with a slightly less expensive one; the Office for the Aging received a small federal grant; and $8,000, earmarked for a raise for an assistant district attorney who resigned after the budget was written, was divided among three other prosecutors.
The three Democrats voted against the budget on the grounds that the tax reduction could have been bigger.
“We could have gone farther this year,” said Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls. “Our side of the aisle had over $700,000 in cuts. Every one of our resolutions was voted down, even $2,000 for office supplies, and you’re giving 10 percent raises to people who don’t deserve them.”
He was referring to the raises, ranging as high as 10 percent, for GOP patronage employees, department heads and other nonunion personnel. About half of those receiving raises are assistant district attorneys as part of a general increase in their pay scale.
“This was for the purposes of trying to get them into a scale where we can keep people,” District Attorney Michael J. Violante said. “I lost three valuable assistant district attorneys this year because of money.”
Meanwhile, Joerg, whose pay is rising by 10 percent, battled with Virtuoso over the opinion from the Jaeckle Fleischmann & Mugel law firm that the Democratic resolution to restore the union “step increases” was unlawful.
It would have cost more than $900,000, mostly paid for by increasing estimates of sales tax revenue.
Joerg said the measure was, in effect, granting raises to union members without negotiations. “You can’t do it under the Taylor Law,” he said.
Virtuoso said union pay was frozen through budget action, not by negotiations. He said the Democrats were only trying to restore the pay scale in the most recent union contracts.