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It's hard to know what's more galling, the suspicious stress claims that allow a handful of firefighters to stay home with full pay, or the fact that the city has made it so easy for them to make those claims by once again bargaining away its management rights. It's a close call, but we vote for the city's pathetic history of giving away the store.

A little context is needed here. We're only talking about a dozen firefighters out of 655 brave men and women who risk their lives every day so that the people of Buffalo can feel safe. It's a bit hard to keep that in mind when you consider some of the outrageous claims documented by News reporter Lou Michel. For example, two firefighters who had an argument claimed stress, and one got to stay at home at full pay for three weeks while the other is still out a year later. Or how about the two firefighters who claimed job-related stress because a colleague died at home in an off-duty accident?

But even the small number of dubious claims -- one city official says 75 percent of stress claims he deals with are pure baloney -- still cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. For a city that has to scratch for every penny, that's significant.

What makes it even worse is that the city -- again -- caved in to a municipal union. Instead of relying on the state law that deals with these cases, the city in 1993 signed an agreement with the firefighters union that made Buffalo the only city in the state to take the decision-making power about stress-related injuries out of the fire commissioner's hands, according to Christopher Putrino, the assistant corporation counsel who deals with Fire Department matters.

Before that memo was signed, if a firefighter claimed stress, and the city contested it, there would be a hearing. But if the firefighter didn't want to work, he or she would have to take sick time while the union pursued a grievance, according to Louis R. Giardina, the city's director of employee relations. There was a risk. Because of the 1993 agreement, there is no risk. The firefighter, even if the city contests the claim, goes out on disability at full pay.

A hearing is supposed to take place in seven days, but that's a fantasy. According to the 1993 memo of agreement, there are only four hearing officers who can hear the cases, and they are backed up for months. Some cases lasted for a year and a half before a hearing was even scheduled. More hearing officers will soon be added, but even that took an inordinately long time because the union and city have to approve new hearing officers, and each side wants to stack the deck with ones it thinks will rule in its favor.

It's a mess, much like the one in the city Police Department that has hamstrung management from running the department in a sensible manner.

It does no good to rail against unions. The firefighters' union is doing what it's supposed to do -- protect the rights of its members. It's just difficult to fathom why the city continually has made it easy for union rights to trample taxpayer rights.

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