Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority police could eventually get a huge salary increase.
The State Legislature this week approved a law that would equip transit police with a powerful new bargaining tool -- the right to binding arbitration if they are unable to reach agreement on future pay raises.
State legislators say it is a matter of fairness for the authority's 76 cops, who are the region's lowest-paid officers.
But NFTA officials fear higher police salaries would translate into increased bus and rail fares.
Expansion of binding arbitration, pending Gov. George E. Pataki's approval, comes at a time when state lawmakers are demanding that Buffalo re-engineer itself by reducing the costs of municipal services. In fact, the city's police budget is a major target.
"If we get outlandish settlements from a third-party arbitrator, it may be passed on to the public in the form of higher fares," Lawrence M. Meckler, the NFTA's executive director, said of the law aiding transit police. He wants Pataki to veto the measure.
NFTA contract negotiators, Meckler insisted, are capable of settling contracts with the transit police, who, he says, perform an excellent job in protecting the region's airports, buses and rapid rail line.
But the head of the union representing the officers says the authority has failed to provide its police with a decent wage.
"In seven of the 18 years the transit force has existed, we've taken zero-percent pay increases," said Officer David Zarbo, president of the NFTA Police Benevolent Association.
Transit officers with five years' seniority top out at an annual salary of $40,000, "while the average local salary for police is $54,000 to $55,000," Zarbo said.
Until last year when the NFTA's Board of Commissioners granted police a 14 percent pay increase, Zarbo said, four of his union members received government assistance for food and heating costs.
Since the raise, he said, two officers still qualify and receive the help.
"I don't want to be the highest-paid police department. I just can't be the lowest-paid," Zarbo said. "At least 80 percent of my officers work second jobs. With the hours we put in, we never see our families."
Defending the legislation, Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, said the NFTA does not negotiate fairly.
"The issue is the officers are getting paid nowhere near the pay of comparable police agencies in Western New York," Tokasz said. "This is a question of fairness."
But Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said expanding binding arbitration to another public employee unit will make it all the more difficult to control costs.
"This is a time at which we are looking for re-engineering public services through appropriate collaborations among municipalities, and this makes achieving that more difficult," Rudnick said.
Binding arbitration undermines management rights and increases costs without addressing productivity "as collective bargaining has in the private sector," he said.
State Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, said binding arbitration is not to blame for driving the region's public sector into economic turmoil.
"You can't blame binding arbitration for the problems in Buffalo. What killed the city is its loss in property tax revenues," said Volker, who wanted to help NFTA police "because they are very low-paid."
Binding arbitration, he explained, exists because the Taylor Law prohibits police and other public employees from striking. "Police strikes," Volker said, "destroy cities."
The State Legislature's measure, Volker added, limits binding arbitration to economic issues for NFTA police. If the two sides couldn't agree on terms, an arbitrator would settle matters.
When asked how the authority would fund increased police salaries that might result, Tokasz suggested the NFTA sell off its waterfront land.
"They are huge land holders on the waterfront. Why don't they sell that land to a developer, then they can pay for this," Tokasz said.
Zarbo pointed out that most police contracts in the state are reached through negotiations. "When the municipality knows binding arbitration is looming out there, it's enough incentive to negotiate," he said.
Mayor Anthony M. Masiello offered another view.
"Binding arbitration makes it more difficult to get contracts that are fiscally responsible," he said. "It's unfortunate that at this time, when we're all right-sizing work forces to what we can pay for, that these kinds of constraints are injected."