LOCKPORT – State Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III has given the City of Lockport the green light to make staffing and equipment cuts in the city Fire Department.
The judge rejected the Lockport Professional Firefighters Association’s request for a preliminary injunction blocking the impending cuts. He lifted a temporary injunction he had issued several months ago delaying the city’s effort to trim the 38-member union.
Kevin W. Pratt, president of the firefighters union, said he and the union’s attorneys knew the attempt to get a preliminary injunction to stop the staffing and equipment cuts was a “long shot.” But Pratt said the union will continue with its grievance and enter into what could be a nine- to 18-month-long state-enforced arbitration proceeding to restore the department to its earlier operating levels.
“Our chances are much better in arbitration,” Pratt told The Buffalo News on Friday night.
In a three-page ruling, Boniello, who conducted hearings in the dispute in late May, determined that the firefighters union had “failed to establish their entitlement to a preliminary injunction.” He said the union’s contention of suffering “irreparable injury” through budget cuts is insufficient to justify what he called the “drastic remedy” of a preliminary injunction to halt government budget actions.
Even if the firefighters union had been able to establish irreparable harm, the judge held, its chances of succeeding in court were slim. He cited the union’s collective-bargaining agreement with the city, which does not prevent the city government from “taking unilateral action regarding staffing and/or equipment.”
Under the city’s last proposed cuts in the Fire Department budget, shift strengths would be reduced to seven firefighters from nine and one of the city’s three fire trucks and one of its two ambulances could be put out of service to cut overtime expenses.
Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said she is pleased the judge lifted the temporary restraining order, but she insisted that action was supported by the evidence the city’s legal team provided him.
“The ruling verifies the city’s stance that city officials are elected to make these staffing decisions,” she said.
McCaffery said the court case launched by the firefighters union “left the city no choice but to oppose the temporary restraining order.”
“Had we not, we would have been prevented from making the professional staffing decisions that are necessary given the city’s financial condition,” she said. “I’m committed to making decisions that are to the benefits of the city and we’ll move forward.
Pratt said he has no doubt the Fire Department cuts will proceed.
“I just hope nothing bad happens to firefighters or the citizens” with the impending cutbacks, he said.
Pratt noted that the city has similar staffing and overtime problems with its Police Department “but the city does not like to talk about that.”
In response to Pratt’s claim that the police department is experiencing the same overtime pay problems that put the fire department in court, McCaffrey said police overtime “is within budget and the city was right to stand firm” on the fire union’s demands.”