LOCKPORT – The Niagara County Legislature is to vote tonight to restore annual raises, or “step increases,” for union employees. The county cut off those raises three years ago.
The resolution directs County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz and other top officials to prepare a 2015 budget that includes the increases, as long as they don’t cause the county to exceed the state property tax cap, which is expected to be about 3.75 percent.
“It wasn’t my recommendation to do it that way,” Glatz said Monday. He said he would have waited until later in the year to decide on step increases. However, he added, “I will do whatever they direct me to do.”
Budget Director Daniel R. Huntington said step increases for 2015 would cost about $1.3 million. He said that the 2012 steps would have cost about $800,000 but that he never calculated step totals for 2013 or 2014.
This year, the state has added a new rule in which the state will pay rebates to any property owner who sees a tax increase, as long as the taxing entity remains under the cap. The resolution directs Glatz and his team to make sure those rebate checks, which would arrive from Albany in October 2015, are not endangered.
William C. Rutland, president of the county’s blue-collar union, denounced the resolution. “How can someone make a decision on next year’s budget until they have the entire budget?” asked Rutland, head of the county’s local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Other union spokesmen did not return calls seeking comment.
Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield, said two majority caucus members from Lockport, Anthony J. Nemi and W. Keith McNall pushed for the measure.
“Nemi was the leader, without any question,” Ross said.
Nemi could not be reached to comment Monday.
“That’s something we proposed last year, and they said the money wasn’t there. The money was there, and this proves it,” said Legislature Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls.
Since the steps were cut off as a cost-saving move, the county’s labor relations have sunk to new lows, with negotiations on replacing long-expired contracts grinding to a halt and the county spending almost $430,000 in 2012 and 2013 on labor-related legal fees for Jaeckle Fleischmann & Mugel of Buffalo.
“We certainly hope we re-establish a working rapport with the unions,” Ross said.
Glatz said, “I hope the union leadership sees that as an attempt to bridge the gap.”
“If they wanted to improve labor relations,” Rutland said, “they wouldn’t hire Jaeckle Fleischmann. If they wanted to improve labor relations, they’d talk to us directly.”
Much of the legal expense has been accumulated responding to union grievances. One such instance occurred last week, when a daylong session was held before a hearing officer of the state Public Employment Relations Board on an AFSCME grievance over the type of chairs allowed in break rooms at the county parks and highway garage.
“This isn’t Club Med,” Glatz said. He contended that some break room chairs were “ratty pieces of furniture,” including “a Barcalounger” that apparently came from the old Mount View Health Facility. He said the county wanted chairs that were safer and easier to clean.
Rutland denied that the Mount View chair was a lounge chair, saying that it was “steel with vinyl upholstery. … The chairs they made the guys sit in were very small waiting room chairs that were discarded by Mental Health.” Rutland said the PERB officer gave the sides 60 days to settle the chair issue on their own. Glatz was unable to confirm that.