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County legislators say union objections caused them to budget $142,925 to operate a public health laboratory in 1998 even though the county Health Department wants to close the laboratory and have the work done in Erie County.

The amount is $52,685 less than this year.

The lab in Niagara Falls has one full-time employee, Mary Jane Hallifax. A second full-time employee received a Civil Service job elsewhere in the Health Department earlier this year.

The Board of Health, which sets Health Department policy, voted to close the lab and contract its work to Erie County.

But the Civil Service Employees Association, which represents Mrs. Hallifax, refused to go along with the plan.

"We have contract language that contracting out of work must be negotiated with the union prior to them doing it," said Linda Gibbons, president of the Niagara County CSEA local.

County Legislator Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, outgoing chairman of the Legislature's Health Services Committee, said it was the outsourcing of the work that caused the trouble.

"If we were just going to lay (Mrs. Hallifax) off, it would be different," Virtuoso said. "So instead of getting into a big hassle over it, we authorized the job for another year."

Ms. Gibbons said the union remains prepared to file a grievance if the lab is closed without union approval, although she said no grievance was filed this year.

"We can't take action until they actually do it," Ms. Gibbons said.

Mrs. Hallifax, a 24-year veteran of the Health Department, declined to comment.

The Health Service Committee restored Mrs. Hallifax's job, and she will be paid $35,864 in 1998, according to county Budget Director Sharon Sacco. The part-time lab director, Dr. Paul S. Meade, will earn $23,212. A Health Department typist, Mary A. Ventry, has part of her time assigned to the lab.

In the wake of the committee's action, Public Health Director David E. Wertman, a strong proponent of closing the lab, said he decided to try reducing Mrs. Hallifax's job to half-time.

He said one of the issues with the Niagara County lab is that its workload is small and declining. It primarily performs tests on restaurant food samples, although it does some tests on drinking water and carries out some tuberculosis and other medical tests.

Dr. Mitchell R. Zavon, former Board of Health president, said a small workload decreases the accuracy of a lab's testing results.

Wertman submitted a resolution for the Legislature's budget adoption meeting Dec. 2. It included a reduction of Mrs. Hallifax's hours.

"I firmly believe it is within management's rights to reduce an employee's hours," Wertman said.

County Human Resources Director Frank G. Caputo said it "was a workload decision" Wertman was empowered to make, and the county attorney's office issued an opinion confirming that.

But Legislator Richard C. Corica, D-Lockport, chairman of the Finance Committee, proposed an amendment to the resolution, deleting the cut in Mrs. Hallifax's pay -- in effect, restoring her full-time job.

The amendment and the resolution passed.

Corica said the possibility of a grievance over the lab closing influenced his decision to restore the funding.

"Why take somebody out of work when you're going to have to pay her anyway?" he asked. "Somebody dropped the ball" on the negotiations with the union.

"It was a small item in a big package, and there was general indifference to it," lamented Wertman. "Everything the Board of Health wanted to do was undone."

But the lab's future is not assured. "The Board of Health still supports regionalization of laboratory services and will continue to push for it," Wertman said. "But we have to convince the Legislature."

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