Mayor Byron W. Brown wants to hire 40 new firefighters this summer and will likely ask the control board for permission.
The administration claims it would cost less in the long run to hire the new firefighters than to pay a huge overtime tab for the current force.
The move comes at a time when a four-year fiscal plan calls for continued downsizing to 690 firefighters. Two years ago, the city had an 820-member fire force. Now there are 731 firefighters, but 86 are on injury status.
Administration officials said comparable cities typically have 25 to 30 firefighters out of work at any given time due to work-related injuries. The union blames Buffalo's higher figure on poor training, recent service cuts and city delays in paying medical bills and authorizing medical care.
Finance Commissioner James B. Milroy said hiring more firefighters is key to reining in costs.
"There's no other way to bring overtime down next year or the year after," said Milroy. "Unless [injured] firefighters get miraculously healthy, we're going to need a new class."
Overtime in the Fire Department could approach $9 million in the new fiscal year, Milroy told the Common Council's Budget Committee on Thursday. In a best case scenario, the city would face a $6.7 million overtime bill.
By comparison, he said, hiring 40 firefighters would cost $2.4 million, including fringe benefits. Milroy conceded the new hirings wouldn't solve the overtime problem in the 2006 fiscal year, because firefighters would be in training for several months during the season when overtime hits its peak. But he said the hirings would save millions of dollars in the long term.
In 2004, the city spent just over $2 million for fire overtime. A year later, the overtime tab exceeded $4.4 million.
Milroy told lawmakers that Fire Commissioner Michael S. Lombardo has requested that a new class of 40 recruits be brought on board July 1. It would be the city's first new class of firefighters in more than three years.
The control board will not comment until the city formally submits a request for the additional hirings, board spokesperson Nancy Brock said Thursday.
City officials and union leaders have long disagreed over what has caused Buffalo to have more injured-on-duty firefighters than comparable municipalities.
"Other cities provide prompt medical treatment, pay medical bills in a timely fashion and give firefighters proper training," said fire union President Joseph E. Foley.
He displayed a folder of unpaid bills and said some doctors have even stopped seeing employees because of delays.
Firefighters also argue Buffalo's older housing stock puts them at greater risk of being injured.
Human Resources Commissioner Leonard A. Matarese disagreed the city has dragged its feet in authorizing appropriate medical care. But he said the administration hopes to commit more staffing to handling the payment of medical bills.
Brown and Matarese agreed with the union that firefighter training must be enhanced.
State policies that have made it more difficult to switch injured firefighters and police officers from the city payroll to the state's disability pension program have also been a factor, city officials said.