The Niagara Falls Uniformed Firefighters Association Local 714 is back in court with the city administration, seeking to compel it to fill five vacant firefighter positions.
The suit is virtually identical to one the union filed against the administration of former Mayor James C. Galie in 1998. The firefighters won that suit when a State Supreme Court justice ordered the city to fill three budgeted positions and pay the affected employees retroactively.
The city appealed the decision and eventually settled the case by reaching an agreement with the union. The agreement required, in part, that future vacancies in the department, with the exception of the chief, be filled within 30 days.
City Administrator Albert T. Joseph said the 1998 agreement still is in effect and "that, of course, is what the firemen's complaint is."
Edward P. Perlman, the lawyer for Local 714, would not comment on the pending litigation. The petition Perlman filed claims that the positions were budgeted and the city administration cannot refuse to fill them.
Corporation Counsel Ronald D. Anton said the city administration's stand is that whether they are budgeted or not, the positions can't be filled because there is no money. "They're saying you should have filled them and they want them filled retroactively, which would constitute the city paying for services that weren't rendered," Anton said. "There simply is not money to pay for services we didn't get."
Anton said that as a general principle, because it's a matter of public safety, "we would always fill police and fire positions if we had the money."
David B. McGovern, president of Local 714, however, said that has not been the history.
"It seems like every time there's a budget problem, we get cut. Other than the Sanitation Department, the Fire Department was the only one to bear the brunt of the 20 percent cuts during the Galie administration. When's it going to stop? We're not the cause of the city's financial problems, but they're taking our jobs to try to solve it," McGovern said.
Joseph, who was ordered along with Fire Chief William Correa to appear in State Supreme Court on Monday, said he was not aware of the legal action. According to the show cause order obtained from the Niagara County clerk's office, the court date was postponed until 10:30 a.m. Monday. Joseph said he was aware there was talk about a potential lawsuit.
"We do have some unfilled positions. They were unfilled for a long time because the money was being used to pay for buyouts for firefighters who retired. We're now looking at whether we want to fill them ever," Joseph said.
According to the union's petition, the 2001 budget provides for 91 firefighters. Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 4, nine firefighters retired. On Sept. 4, four new firefighters were hired.
The five remaining vacancies occurred between March 31 and July. The petition asks that the vacancies be filled retroactively to the dates they occurred and "that the five firefighters who are appointed be entitled to full economic benefits which they would have earned" had they been appointed when the vacancies occurred.
Saturday, Mayor Irene J. Elia issued a statement saying that due to an anticipated "multimillion-dollar deficit" in 2002, her administration is looking at not filling vacant positions as well as additional cuts.
"Why should we pay for the city's fiscal irresponsibility?" McGovern asked.
"There are vacancies in every city department that provide valuable services to the taxpayers, but we will not be restoring those positions due to the stress on our budget and, in fact, we may be looking to cut even more," Elia said.
"It is our intention to work closely with the City Council, our department heads and our state officials to come up with a responsible budget that does not put all of the burden on our taxpayers nor a budget that depletes city services."
A tax increase, she said, would be a last resort.