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Question now is: Who benefits?

Two city workers -- one a man, one a woman -- debated the news of the day as they left City Hall on Tuesday.

How big a deal, they asked each other, is the Buffalo control board's decision to lift the three-year-old wage freeze on city employees?

"Hey, it's better than where we've been the past few years," the man said with a laugh. "I'm already counting that new money."

As word of the board's action leaked out Tuesday, more and more city employees -- from laborers to clerks to teachers -- found themselves wondering whether they might finally see a raise in their paycheck.

By late afternoon, the conversation had turned to who might benefit and by how much.

"It's long overdue," said Mary Beth Wolniewicz, a city account clerk. "I understand why the city did it, but I think they can afford raises now."

Lifting the wage freeze that has been in effect since April 2004 would give thousands of employees one-step salary increases and longevity payments when the new budget takes effect July 1.

Some city employees lamented the prospect of receiving a one-step salary increase when they're owed more.

Nonetheless, they welcome the extra pay -- for some, it has been more than three years without a raise -- especially with food, gas and utility prices increasing.

"I felt the pinch," said Wolniewicz.

She's not alone.

At the city highway garage on Broadway, workers are under a contract that expired in 2002, and many missed out on scheduled raises, said Larry Panaro, superintendent of street sanitation.

Workers at the garage typically make under $40,000, Panaro said, and the wage freeze has led to tough financial times for some.

"There's a lot of guys who have taken second jobs -- some part-time, some full-time -- in order to make ends meet," Panaro said.

Tom Burvid is happy the wage freeze is lifted -- but he's cautious.

"Whether it works out for us remains to be seen," said Burvid, a 26-year laborer with the department. "Everything's going up around our salary, the cost of gas, the cost of milk. Little things like that add up."

City employees would receive only a one-step increase, even if they missed out on more than that during the wage freeze, according to legal opinions from state attorneys.

Melissa Peters, a second-grade teacher at Discovery School 67 on Abbott Road, said that decision is unfair to teachers since they lose the steps they would have otherwise accumulated while the freeze was in effect.

"I think we're getting screwed again," she said.

Buffalo police officers hired inside the last seven years face the same dilemma.

South District Officer James T. Reese has 19 years on the job, so he's already at the top step, but said the raise he will get July 1 is bittersweet.

"How can I be overjoyed for a raise when there are guys I know and I work with that are getting screwed?" Reese said. "It's really not fair."

Response was also tepid on the unofficial police Web log. By about 9:30 p.m., only two posted responses were made to the news.

One anonymous poster called it "a total wash for us in the police department," insinuating that the control board "carried the freeze right up to the last day of the contract" and "[messed with] us good."

But Mayor Byron W. Brown, who had pushed for the freeze to be lifted, said he's committed to try to find ways to get employees all the step increases they missed.

Henry Drzazga hopes the lifting of the wage freeze also will prompt serious discussions with the mayor's office on a new contract for workers at the city highway garage.

"I don't know if this news means they're going to negotiate in good faith or not," said Drzazga, a garage dispatcher and chairman of his union's health and safety committee. "I take this with a grain of salt. Maybe with this mayor being new, he'll deal in good faith."

Peters, meanwhile, conceded the lifting of the freeze may be the best outcome teachers can expect.

"We're tired and I'll take it," she said. "I'll be happy just to move on at this point. Even moving up a step is still a pay raise."

Lynn Diagostino, also a second-grade teacher at the Discovery School, said she supports the Buffalo Teachers Federation plan to file a lawsuit seeking to recover all the lost step increases.

In the meantime, she said, the end of the freeze is most valuable to young teachers who started at the lowest pay level and have been stuck there for as long as three years.

"We're not going to be able keep good teachers if we're not giving them something," she said. "This is at least a step in the right direction."

News Staff Reporters Jay Rey, Peter Simon and T.J. Pignataro contributed to this report.


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