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THE UPCOMING contract negotiations between the City of Buffalo and its police union are of substantial public interest. Looking in from the outside, the big question seems to be whether the city can regain management prerogatives that could lead to better, more efficient police protection without, in the next breath, busting the budget.

City residents and taxpayers have a big stake in the outcome even though they won't be at the table. Therefore it's discouraging that the opening issue is a needless conflict about procedure and not substance.

It's a torturous story.

The Police Benevolent Association put its proposals for a new contract before the city in mid-January. So far, so good.

The contract requires the party receiving the initial proposals to give the other side its counteroffer within 30 days. When the city tried to give the PBA president its proposals, he refused to even take possession of them on the grounds they were late. The union had already started a grievance -- over the lateness issue.

The city acknowledges it acted after passage of 30 calendar days, but argues it made the deadline because its offer was submitted within 30 working days. Whatever, it's not worth a major union salvo that stops negotiations before they start. The city's proposals are now available to be talked about in a bargaining session.

The important point is that the city needs good relations and good-faith bargaining between the city and this very important group of employees. They should be at the table, not fighting it out in procedural wrangles.

At no time have the parties even met yet for a bargaining session. Never mind that there have been no talks about the substance of a contract to have a deadlock about.

By terms of the state's Taylor Law, an impasse leads to appointment of a state mediator and, if deadlocks continue, to binding arbitration to settle the outstanding issues. In this case, the State Public Employment Relations Board is trying to decide if an impasse declaration is appropriate, given the facts.

The PBA should relent, acknowledge the city's proposals and get on with negotiations for a new contract.

It may be that the PBA is hoping to hurry through the impasse process to reach binding arbitration before June 30. On that date, the arbitration provisions of the Taylor Law expire unless they are renewed by the State Legislature.

Government managers contend arbitration produces more costly settlements, and they are lobbying against renewal. Police and fire unions are adamantly lobbying in favor.

Still, both sides have contract proposals to negotiate about. Let's get on with substantive talks.

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