Lockport hires Albany law firm to battle firefighters - The Buffalo News
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Lockport hires Albany law firm to battle firefighters

LOCKPORT – The city will use an Albany law firm in addition to its local counsel to handle the lawsuit against its firefighters union over the city’s efforts to reduce Fire Department staffing and services.

Meanwhile, a joint session of the Common Council and Fire Board, which was to have been held Tuesday to discuss the notion of abolishing ambulance service in the city, has been canceled, Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey announced in an email Friday.

Firefighter Kevin W. Pratt, president of the Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association, said the union’s attorney received notice that the city will be represented in the case by Bryan J. Goldberger of the Albany firm of Goldberger & Kremer.

Corporation Counsel John J. Ottaviano confirmed that Goldberger, who is paid $250 an hour, will appear in court alongside Deputy Corporation Counsel David E. Blackley.

Ottaviano said Goldberger’s assignment to the case was the reason that the city sought a two-week delay in arguing the legality of the city’s efforts to reduce minimum staffing at the Fire Department while taking one of its two ambulances and one of its three fire trucks out of service.

The appearance before State Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III was postponed from Wednesday to May 28.

Ottaviano said the Albany firm was retained in January to help in drawing up new contracts with the city’s five unions, although only the police union actually has made a deal.

“A lot of the arbitrations and grievances stem from poorly drafted contracts in years gone by,” Ottaviano said.

Tuesday’s meeting between the Council and the Fire Board was originally meant to analyze how things were going with only one ambulance in service, and whether the city could stand to do away with ambulance service altogether.

However, Ottaviano said the city decided that there was no point in such a discussion because the union obtained a temporary restraining order restoring the status quo, so the meeting was canceled until the court case is resolved.

“I really think the stay will be lifted,” Blackley said.

The Fire Board voted April 22 to cut staffing from nine firefighters per shift to seven while parking one ambulance and one fire truck. But on May 2, the day after those measures took effect, the union obtained a temporary restraining order from Boniello countermanding the changes. The union claims they violate its contract and an arbitration award it won several years ago that squelched another city attempt to reduce minimum manning. McCaffrey has said the city made the cuts to try to avoid overtime costs of up to $1 million this year.

Meanwhile, Pratt said the city has no fallback position in place if it does away with ambulance service. He claimed that such a move would violate the Niagara County Mutual Aid Agreement, which enables volunteer fire companies to send manpower into the city if needed, and vice versa.

“The volunteers don’t have the responsibility to respond to the city because the city couldn’t respond to them,” Pratt said.

County Fire Coordinator Jonathan F. Schultz wouldn’t confirm a violation, but he said, “Mutual aid is for rare occasions – one, two or three calls – not for a whole city.”

Schultz said McCaffrey had met with Rural/Metro Medical Services this week to try to make an arrangement “because of the call volume.”

“We wouldn’t eliminate ambulances unless we were sure we had someone to take over,” said Alderman Patrick W. Schrader, who serves on the Fire Board.

Schrader said there was a joint meeting this week involving McCaffrey, Schultz and a Rural/Metro representative. McCaffrey could not be reached Friday night.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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