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CITY WORKERS WELL PAID, CONTROL BOARD STUDY SAYS <br> UNION LEADERS CLAIM NUMBERS ARE DISTORTED

The average city worker earns 180 percent more than the typical Buffalo resident, according to a study released Wednesday by the state control board. The analysis also raises productivity issues, claiming the typical city employee could be off the job nearly one-fourth of the year by using all vacation, sick days and other leave.

The average city employee earned $52,429 before fringe benefits last year, the study showed. By comparison, the per capita income of residents in the city was $18,704.

Including fringe benefits, the average city employee cost $74,717. Police officers received an average wage and benefits package totaling $96,854, while the firefighters received $84,107.

"You can see the city work force is quite well paid," said control board Executive Director Dorothy A. Johnson.

Board member Robert G. Wilmers, chief executive officer of M&T Bank, views the figures as impediments to economic development, especially when contrasted with Buffalo's declining tax base.

"The cost of running government is high here, and the assessed value of property has been going down. It doesn't signal a very healthy future," Wilmers warned.

But labor leaders who attended the meeting later blasted the study. Fire union President Joseph E. Foley said the numbers are distorted by the fact that "poor management" has created tremendous poverty in Buffalo.

"They're manipulating the numbers and comparing us with people who flip hamburgers," he said. "A true comparison would be looking at people who have our training, level of expertise, and who put the same number of hours in on the job."

The analysis looked at 100 of the most common occupations in the area. It concluded that city employees rank in the top 10 when it comes to compensation.

The study did not include school district employees or workers in some city agencies. But because it included all city uniformed employees, the average salaries were significantly higher than what most non-uniformed workers make. For example, union leaders said the average blue-collar employee makes about $30,000.

The head of the city blue-collar union accused the control board of having ulterior motives.

"The (slide-show) presentation you just saw in there very clearly sets the table to try to abolish union contracts," said William C. Travis.

Control board Chairman Thomas E. Baker dismissed the claim, noting the oversight panel has no power to abolish contracts. He said the only motive involves an effort to get a handle on personnel costs, which make up about 80 percent of the city's budget. What's especially alarming, Baker said, is that labor costs are increasing despite a wage freeze that has been in place since April. Higher health insurance and pension costs are the culprits.

"We're not picking on labor to pick on them. That's where the money is," said Baker.

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, a control board member, said the study tells an "accurate story." But he claimed it ignored one fact.

"Our salaries are basically in line with -- if not lower than -- other municipalities," Masiello said.

"That doesn't matter," Baker later responded. "The city is in trouble. Other municipalities have the tax base, Buffalo doesn't."

Masiello claimed the data only bolsters his argument that the rising costs of fringe benefits costs are at the "root" of Buffalo's problems. He insisted his administration has done everything it can to hold down costs that are within its control.

"We've been managing the heck out of this place for the past 10 years," he said.

Masiello's remarks came two days after some control board officials gave a scathing critique of city and school district management.

At a meeting that lasted nearly three hours, the control board:

Criticized the school district for delays in providing student enrollment projections the board wants to see before authorizing the next phase of a school modernization program. The board also approved some modifications to the district's budget.

Reprimanded the Masiello administration for moving too slowly to tear down many vacant structures. It claimed city officials "misled" the control board last spring when they signaled an urgent need to borrow money for demolitions. Board members grumbled that most of the money has been "sitting in the bank since June 1."

Received the results of its first annual audit. An official from Lumsden & McCormick, an outside accounting firm, said the review of board finances didn't uncover any significant concerns. City Comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo also plans to audit the control board, saying his review will go beyond Lumsden & McCormick's. The management audit will review expenditures to determine whether they were appropriate.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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