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ARBITRATION AWARD FOR POLICE AFFIRMED

A judge has refused to block an arbitrator's award that gives Buffalo police officers retroactive raises of 4.5 percent over two years, a major victory for the union and a potential $11 million setback for the cash-strapped city.

In a move apparently designed to discourage the city from appealing the ruling, the Police Benevolent Association said Friday it will file a judgment demanding that the city pay the "highest amount of interest allowed by law" on back pay that is owed to more than 900 current and former officers. If the union succeeds in that move, interest would start accumulating despite the appeal, adding to the cost of the award.

State Supreme Court Justice David J. Mahoney ruled that arbitrator Sumner Shapiro "fulfilled the difficult task" assigned to him under state civil service law.

The Masiello administration filed a rare court challenge shortly after the arbitration award was announced in September.

City officials claimed Shapiro overstepped his bounds by suggesting the city could pay for the award by laying off more police officers. They faulted Shapiro for failing to put enough emphasis on Buffalo's ability to pay for 2.25 percent raises retroactive to July 1, 2000, and another 2.25 percent increase retroactive to July 1, 2001.

"The city, with perhaps understandable frustration, has expressed the belief the Shapiro Panel 'clearly went too far in rendering this award,' " Mahoney wrote in a six-page decision. "While this proposition was arguable at the panel level, it is clearly not a basis for this court to nullify and vacate the award herein."

"Everybody senses our frustration, but nobody gives an inch, a dime or a buck," said Mayor Anthony M. Masiello. "It's totally irrational to justify raises by laying off other employees."

Police Benevolent Association President Robert P. Meegan Jr. said he anticipated a ruling in the union's favor.

"I'm extremely pleased, but we were expecting the final outcome to favor the PBA members," he said. "(The city) was just trying to stall the inevitable."

City Finance Commissioner Eva M. Hassett is urging Masiello to consider an appeal, a recommendation the mayor said he will likely heed. The city has a month to plot its next legal move. Hassett reiterated the city's contention that the award was flawed. "If an arbitrator can tell you to lay off police officers, where does that end?" she asked. "We continue to say that the arbitrator was crossing the line and was playing a role that he wasn't supposed to play."

Meegan called inconsistent

Budget Director James B. Milroy said if the raises take effect, they will cost the city about $11 million over the three fiscal years that began in 2000. This figure assumes that firefighters would receive identical raises. Police awards historically have shaped the terms of contracts with firefighters. In the current fiscal year alone, the raises would cost about $3.3 million, Milroy said.

This was the first time in more than two decades that the city initiated so-called Article 78 proceedings in connection with an arbitration award.

Mahoney rejected the city's argument, but said one "avenue for relief" would involve revising the state's Taylor Law, which requires binding arbitration when contract talks with some municipal unions are at impasse. The law was passed in the late 1960s under the premise that strikes by government employees are too disruptive. In raising the issue of revising the Taylor Law, the judge said, "Note should be taken of the current firefighters strike in Great Britain and its horrendous effect."

The city laid off 32 officers this summer as part of a plan for dealing with a fiscal crisis. Seven officers were rehired last month, and the city is hoping to bring back the remaining officers early next year by using a U.S. Justice Department grant to pay their salaries. Budget officials said funding the arbitration award solely through police layoffs would trigger at least 42 additional job cuts.

Meegan went along with the arbitration award, but he insisted that he disagreed with Shapiro's premise that the city should lay off more officers to pay for the raises. Masiello accused Meegan of being inconsistent, saying the union chief signed the award without offering any dissenting opinion.

Union pushing for raises

In a related dispute, mediation is expected to begin soon on a push by the police union for 1 percent raises for all officers as a result of the recent layoffs. The PBA claims the layoffs have increased officers' workloads.

If the city ultimately appeals Mahoney's ruling, Meegan said it raises a serious question about comments made by the man nominated by Masiello to become the administration's chief liaison with union employees. The Council is expected to confirm Leonard A. Matarese to become human resources commissioner next month.

Matarese recently told the Council he will try to change the "win-lose" mentality that has undermined relations, replacing it with a "problem-solving" approach that encourages employees to find creative solutions.

"If they appeal this ruling, that must be the new era of cooperation that they were talking about," Meegan quipped.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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