Mayor Anthony M. Masiello reaffirmed his support for a controversial police restructuring plan Wednesday, refusing to entertain speculation that it could be delayed or even scuttled by lingering uncertainties.
Questions continued to surface about whether a police contract ratified last week is legally binding. Masiello and the police union have insisted all conditions have been met for implementing a contract that critics have called too costly.
A report issued by State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi left the door open to the possibility that the pact might have to be submitted to a new state financial control board for approval.
At the least, the oversight panel would have to authorize plans to borrow money to help pay for the restructuring, and could even delay scheduled raises in the contract. Others suggested that unless the city receives $20 million in promised aid from the state by Saturday, the contract could be invalid.
When pressed about the uncertainties, Masiello said he plans to think "positive" and still assumes the restructuring will move forward. The contract will increase top officers' base salaries from $50,052 to $65,533 over the next four years in return for the union's agreeing to one-officer cars and more flexible schedules. Administration officials said that while the deal is "expensive" in the short-term, it will save millions in future years and improve police services.
"I want to keep my eye on the prize and not worry about all the side agendas," said Masiello. "If there have to be adjustments made, then we'll talk about them. But right now, it's premature."
Robert P. Meegan Jr., Police Benevolent Association president, also insisted that the contract is legally binding, adding that the union is set to begin discussions with the city about an implementation schedule.
"I expect this contract to be complied with by all parties," he said.
But critics continued to question the contract's validity and affordability. County Executive Joel A. Giambra referred to an analysis done by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the area's largest business group, claiming that the contract would cost the city $43.4 million even with reductions in the police force.
Kenneth Vetter, a public policy analyst for the Partnership, said that even if the contract realized the $11 million annual savings projected by the city, it would not come close to covering Buffalo's future projected deficits that could approach $80 million.
Giambra also said the contract might be invalid if the city doesn't get the state money it was promised by Saturday.
If the contract's legitimacy becomes a legal issue, he said, it could unravel into the same kind of long legal battle that plagued the Buffalo teachers union.
How much impact did the controversy over the police contract have on state officials' decision to impose a control board over city spending? Masiello's chief of staff said the issue may have expedited the process, but she thinks the outcome would have been the same.
"The control board would have been here anyway," said Eva M. Hassett. "Upstate cities have been on the financial edge for years, even decades." She said the fiscal pressures facing cities, including declining tax bases, were compounded by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the volatile stock market.
"It was clear that something fundamental was going to have to be done," she said.
News Staff Reporter Sandra Tan contributed to this report.