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FIRE UNION'S FIGHT HEADS FROM COURT TO BOARD

Buffalo's fire union has ended its court fight to try to get a judge to bar the city from implementing health insurance changes, but the dispute will move to a state labor board.

Meanwhile, the city filed improper practice charges against the fire union Friday, accusing it of failing to negotiate in good faith on a plan that puts all employees under a single health insurer. The fire union maintains that the city illegally implemented the plan even though firefighters rejected it by a 3-1 margin.

Union President Joseph E. Foley confirmed that the court fight was discontinued only days before a judge was scheduled to hold a hearing on the union's push for an injunction. He said the union wanted to avoid causing stress for some firefighters and their families who would have had to publicly testify about personal medical issues in an effort to prove that the changes will cause "harm" to some employees. The city denies that the changes will adversely affect any insurance benefits.

Last week, State Supreme Court Justice Eugene M. Fahey denied the union's request for a temporary order that would have barred the city from putting the insurance changes into effect. Had the union proceeded with its case, a hearing was scheduled for Wednesday.

The battleground will now shift to the state Public Employment Relations Board, where an administrative law judge will consider claims lodged by both the union and the city that the other side acted improperly.

Matthew C. Van Vessem, an attorney at Jaeckle Fleischmann & Mugel, which represents the city in the dispute, expects PERB to schedule a prehearing conference this summer.

Putting all employees and retirees under plans offered by the parent company of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Western New York will save the city at least $6 million a year. Foley signed an agreement for the single provider but insisted that firefighters still had to ratify the plan. Union members rejected the change, but the city proceeded to implement it, insisting that the ratification vote was unnecessary.

Both sides agree the festering dispute has heightened tensions. Firefighters have been working under an old contract and have not received raises since 2001. Another disagreement erupted last week after union leaders disputed claims by Human Resources Commissioner Leonard A. Matarese that union bargainers were offered but rejected a deal last year that would have included raises.

Foley insisted Friday that no such offer was formally made. He added that the union remains receptive to trying to resolve some issues.

"But the city hasn't been discussing anything with us for a long time," he said. "They keep hiding behind the control board."

Matarese said the city remains willing to consider any plan that is either "cost neutral" or ends up saving money. He said if firefighters are willing to consider changes that can cut expenses, city officials would be willing to "share the savings" with firefighters.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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