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Labor cost crux of county solution Hard control board needed to find savings and changes in contracts

Here's a strong case for a hard county control board: If Erie County is to remake itself as a more efficient and streamlined operation, its unions must agree to major contract changes. At the same time, union officials are on the money when they observe that these contracts emerged from legitimate bargaining.

County managerial incompetence, dating back to before the Giambra administration, produced unsustainable contracts that provide benefits, such as full pay for shortened summer hours and four weeks vacation after nine years, that would have private-sector managers scratching their heads.

County Executive Joel A. Giambra and the control board's financial consultants are correct, however. A hard control board is the only likely route to meaningful change in employee-favorable contracts. Without those changes, Erie County government is unaffordable in its current form. But unions will not unilaterally give back hard-won rights.

As critics note, standard labor practice is to accept layoffs and even wage freezes before considering significant concessions that affect the most senior union members. The only way to accomplish change, short of modifying the state's Taylor Law, is through a hard control board.

It works like this: Control boards cannot simply throw out existing contracts, but they typically have power to accept or reject new ones and they can impose wage freezes. When that happens an existing contract remains in place.

Consider Buffalo. The city control board froze wages, and several contracts are up for renewal. Contracts for police, firefighters and teachers provide for elective cosmetic surgery -- a nicer looking nose, say -- paid by taxpayers, many of them poor. If union negotiators want to win raises for their members, they are going to have to understand that the control board is unlikely in the extreme to approve any new contract that perpetuates this absurd benefit, and maybe others. That doesn't mean they have to simply give it up, but they have to be prepared to bargain it away, given the change in the negotiating environment.

Same goes for the county, if it were to operate with the added backbone of a hard control board.

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