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Lockport to appeal ruling restoring ambulance service

LOCKPORT - The Lockport Common Council defeated a resolution Wednesday that tried to bar the city administration from appealing a state order that the Fire Department's ambulance service must be restored.

However, the 3-2 vote didn't make any difference, because Corporation Counsel John J. Ottaviano said he was going to file the appeal anyway.

"The (City) Charter empowers me to prosecute and defend all matters as I see fit," Ottaviano said.

He said the city has until early December to appeal the ruling, or it would have to be obeyed.

Alderman R. Joseph O'Shaughnessy and Alderwoman Anita Mullane voted to stop the appeal. Aldermen Richard E. Abbott, Joseph P. Oates and Council President David R. Wohleben voted for the appeal. Alderman Mark S. Devine abstained because his son is a fireman who could benefit from the state ruling.

Administrative Law Judge Lynn Fitzgerald of the state Public Employment Relations Board ruled in late October that the Council's 2014 vote to privatize ambulance service violated the contract of the city firefighters union. Twin City Ambulance was hired.

Ottaviano said that the Council could vote anytime it wants to restore the city ambulance service - although the city would have to buy or lease some ambulances, because it auctioned off the old ones - but without a successful appeal, if the city ever gets into another financial crisis, it would lack the option of dropping the service.

"This decision says you can't get out unless the Fire Department agrees with you," Ottaviano said. "We don't agree with her (Fitzgerald)."

He also conceded that the Council could defund his budget for outside counsel to handle such cases. But Mullane, D-2nd Ward, said she tried to do that in a budget work session Tuesday and couldn't round up enough votes.

Mullane said the firefighters are one of four city unions working under terms of expired contracts. "I think the Council should take over the negotiations and hire an independent negotiator," she said.

Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said talks are going on with all unions. "I'm satisfied. It does take awhile," she said.

Ottaviano predicted the appeal to the full Public Employment Relations Board would take nine months to be resolved. Some aldermen said that gives the city nine months to make a deal with the union, which has invoked its binding arbitration rights for a new contract. That hearing has yet to be scheduled, but McCaffrey said dates between January and March are being discussed.

"It doesn't mean we can't sit down with people and settle these issues," said Oates, R-1st Ward. "It's less expensive to mediate than litigate."

"I don't want to spend any more on this. Why does this have to go on, that we have to fight this?" asked O'Shaughnessy, D-at large, who sponsored the resolution to try to block the appeal.

He said he couldn't challenge McCaffrey's statement that restoring ambulance service would require an 8 percent property tax increase. The mayor said the cost of the service was $1.4 million, less $600,000 in fees collected from patients for a net cost of $800,000.

"Those are bona fide numbers," O'Shaughnessy said. But he insisted, "If it was done professionally with the right staffing, we could make money. Twin City's making money."

Resident Susan Wienke told the Council about her encounter with a Twin City crew. She said, "They walked me out of the house with a ruptured appendix. They didn't know where the hospital was. They went up a one-way street the wrong way, and I swear they hit every pothole in the city."

Wienke said when she saw the bill of over $1,000 that Medicare paid Twin City for that, she was convinced the city could make money on ambulances.

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