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POLICE UNION CHIEF QUICKLY RATIFIES PACT
CONTRACT WILL BOOST BUFFALO OFFICERS' PAY AS SUPPORT FOR RESTRUCTURING PLAN ERODES

The president of Buffalo's police union, apparently prompted by eroding support for a police restructuring plan, fast-tracked ratification of a new contract Friday that will make Buffalo officers the best paid in Erie County.

Union officials say the city is obligated to fund the agreement even though a police restructuring plan -- which includes money to finance the contract -- could be in jeopardy.

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello agreed with the union, saying all conditions have been met.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is a legally-binding contract," he said. "I think (the union's) action is in response to rumors in Albany that this contract could be nullified."

Officers had been scheduled to vote on the contract Tuesday and Wednesday. Instead, Police Benevolent Association President Robert P. Meegan Jr. took an unusual step Friday and ratified the contract on his own before a rank-and-file vote occurred. Police officers who attended a hastily called emergency meeting Friday night were expected to endorse Meegan's action, although Meegan said the officers' vote was only advisory.

"I have the authority under the constitutional bylaws to ratify the contract," said Meegan.

The city needs a $29 million state loan to help pay for the contract, but that request has encountered opposition in Buffalo and Albany as the depth of the city's financial troubles has become more apparent.

Masiello said Friday he remains confident the state will ultimately either allow the city to borrow money or designate a new revenue stream for Buffalo. However, he declined to speculate on the fate of police restructuring.

Patrol officers will see their salaries increase by more than $13,000 over four years, including a $5,000 raise retroactive to July 1, 2002.

In return, the union has agreed to one-officer cars and more flexible scheduling.

Critics have branded the contract an overly generous deal that leaves the city with too much debt and no long-term savings. Supporters defend the plan as a major step toward achieving fiscal stability.

Negotiators announced what they lauded as a "historic agreement" in March when the deal was reached, but it was contingent on getting state assistance by May 31.

City and union negotiators said the State Legislature complied with that condition last week when the Legislature provided the city with $20 million in accelerated aid to help finance police and fire restructurings.

But the city is also seeking state approval to borrow $29 million to help pay for the contract, a request that is facing rough sailing in Albany.

A state audit that is due to be released Wednesday is expected to raise doubts that Masiello's re-engineering plan will solve Buffalo's budget problems, sources said.

Friday's action by the police union follows a rapid crumbling of support for Masiello's plan, with several independent analyses contending that it costs far more than it saves.

New reviews of the agreement indicate significant savings will result from adopting one-officer patrol cars, and Masiello and his team steadfastly defend their work.

But according to a study by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the resulting costs of increased salaries, health insurance, pension and new patrol vehicles pushes annual losses to $10 million in 2006-07, instead of the $11 million in savings predicted by the city.

Masiello gets advice

The Partnership joins County Executive Joel A. Giambra, acting Buffalo Comptroller Andrew A. San Filippo, and reportedly State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi in questioning the affordability of a pact they say pays too dearly for the savings achieved through one-officer patrol cars.

"The cost of the contract so outweighs the savings that it becomes a bad deal, especially given the city's problems," said Partnership President Andrew J. Rudnick.

Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, said he expects the Hevesi report due next week to raise similar concerns. That is prompting him to advise Masiello against implementing the new police contract for the time being.

"Does it raise questions? Yes," Tokasz said. "We will try to convince the mayor he should not sign anything right now."

However, Masiello insists he has no option but to implement the pact because all of the conditions have been met.

Giambra and Rudnick are leading the charge against implementing the police pact based on a number of claims, including:

Increased salaries, health insurance costs, and pension costs make the contract too expensive at a time when the city is approaching the point where it might have to be governed by a financial control board.

The police retirements anticipated in order to achieve the projected savings are based on faulty assumptions, with Rudnick and Giambra arguing that significantly sweetened salaries and pensions will act as a disincentive for officers to retire.

The deal sets a pattern for future negotiations with the Fire Department, which detractors say will only exacerbate the city's problem.

Layoffs prohibited

Under a best case scenario prepared by the Partnership -- looking at such variables as health care costs and stock market trends -- the contract stands to cost the city $10 million in 2006-07 because of increased costs. It would cost the city $16 million under a worst case scenario -- even assuming that the force shrinks from 877 to 675 officers, as the administration predicts.

Rudnick said the reported concurrence of Hevesi backs up his claims.

"I have a lot of confidence in our numbers, but a lot more since someone else believes," he said.

In addition, the Giambra administration continues to make the case for combining the Police Department with the Erie County Sheriff's Department as a way to implement operational efficiencies. Officials said the new contract prohibits the city from laying off police to balance its budget, while the county executive is predicting city deficits of at least $50 million next year.

"They've given up their managerial right to lay off (police) until at least 2007," said Kathleen E. O'Hara, the city's former director of labor relations who now performs the same job for Erie County.

"By all accounts, this is a very rich agreement for the members of the PBA," she added.

Rudnick said much of the Partnership's problems with City Hall's course is the assumption that 202 officers will retire when they'll have the opportunity to earn more money than ever before.

Analysis said to be flawed

But Masiello and his team remains adamant about the benefits of the deal that Meegan says is now implemented. They argue the Partnership analysis is flawed by assuming that pension, health care and salary costs would not increase anyway. Pension costs have increased because of the stock market downturn, argued James B. Milroy, commissioner of administration and finance.

And city Human Resources Commissioner Leonard A. Matarese says the analysis makes a comparison to a "non-existent possibility."

"It says there will be no increase and the police will volunteer to go to one-officer patrol cars," he said. "They're comparing to a wish list that will never happen."

Masiello acknowledges the city has forfeited its right to lay off officers in the new pact, but argued that layoffs under the current work rules would cause even more problems. Overtime would "go off the charts," he said, because requirements for two-person cars would still exist.

"Can we afford to do it? No. Can we afford not to do it? No," the mayor said. "The higher overtime, unemployment costs and resulting inefficiencies will cost even more. So there's a tradeoff here.

"This is a better way of downsizing our Police Department and still have quality service," he added. "It's more responsible, and I'm not backing off of that."

Warning issued

Milroy recently warned that the city would face "the worst possible scenario" if the state came up with aid for the police restructuring, but failed to authorize the loans.

"By giving us the front piece without the back piece, they could obligate us to a contract that we can't afford," said Milroy. "The front piece without the back piece is actually worse than nothing at all."

SanFilippo warned Friday that implementing the police deal without the loans would create major fiscal problems.

"Without that $29 million, the plan is cost-prohibitive," he said.

SanFilippo stood by earlier warnings that the police contract is an "expensive deal with a lot of 'ifs.' " While he views the agreement as an important step toward reform, he said it raises some "very real affordability issues."

The five-year contract, described by one police executive as "the largest and most monumental Buffalo police contract since the birth of the police car," is viewed by rank-and-file police as a turning point for the department.

Under the agreement, officers will gain more job security and receive substantial raises. Patrol officers' top base salary would jump from $51,072 to $56,072 retroactive to July 1, 2002, with 3.4 percent raises in each of the remaining four years.

"Sure, it's a lot of money," said one police manager. "But if the state troopers are riding up and down the highway writing traffic tickets and getting paid $70,000 a year, how can you complain about a cop in the inner-city who's getting shot at every now and then?"

News Staff Reporter Vanessa Thomas contributed to this report.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com
and rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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