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End of wage freeze may break budget City allocates just $2.2 million for police, but full back pay could total $9.4 million

When Buffalo's wage freeze is lifted July 1, police officers should receive $64,095 annually in base salaries -- about $6,100 more than what Mayor Byron W. Brown's budget calls for paying them, the police union insists.

The union contends the city cannot lift just a part of the wage freeze -- that is, moving employees up in salary steps. Included in the last contract were pay raises. The police union says the city is legally bound to raise officers' salaries by 10.2 percent because they were denied 3.4 percent raises in each of the three years the wage freeze was in place.

If police officers receive the missed raises, Buffalo's costs for lifting the wage freeze would skyrocket in the coming year by more than four times what the mayor's current plan projects. The price tag for the city would be about $9.4 million -- not $2.2 million.

After meeting with union leaders Thursday, Brown told The Buffalo News he favors giving police officers 10.2 percent raises suspended during the wage freeze, but he isn't sure state law would allow it. Brown is asking for a legal opinion from attorneys in Albany.

City officials are aware that any effort to deny police officers three suspended raises contained in an existing contract could trigger more court fights. Such a move could also undermine future negotiations with officers.

"We would rather negotiate than litigate," Brown said. "We would rather pay the workers than pay the lawyers."

The former chief legal adviser to the city's control board said Thursday he also believes that the Police Department pay ladder must be increased to reflect the promised raises.

"Those raises were frozen -- they were not canceled," Darryl McPherson said.

But the city's top attorney said it all hinges on an interpretation of state law. Sections of the law are "somewhat contradictory" as to whether raises suspended during the wage freeze would be given once the freeze is lifted, Corporation Counsel Alisa A. Lukasiewicz said.

The mayor's plan as proposed earlier this week would grant 55 officers who are on lower salary tiers step increases to move them to the top base salary.

Other officers would receive small longevity payments.

Any move to leave out the 10.2 percent in cumulative raises when the freeze is lifted would be illegal, Buffalo Police Benevolent President Robert P. Meegan Jr. said.

"We would be in court," Meegan said. "There's nothing in [state law] that allows for a piecemeal lifting of the wage freeze."

After meeting privately with the mayor Thursday, Meegan said he's convinced Brown will make a good faith effort to get officers their raises.

The city comptroller's office, which is responsible for issuing paychecks to employees, has yet to take a formal position on whether officers' salaries should be adjusted to reflect the raises they missed.

"It's definitely a major issue, and we're looking into it right now," said Tony Farina, executive assistant to Comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo.

If the police salary structure is not revised to reflect the raises that were supposed to kick in, McPherson predicted it would be "a lawsuit waiting to happen."

McPherson left the control board last fall to become the city's auditor. However, McPherson and other city officials stressed that his views on the police contract do not reflect the comptroller's position.

The Buffalo News attempted several times this week to discuss the lifting of the wage freeze and its impact on city finances with control board Chairman Brian J. Lipke. He did not return calls to comment.

The control board Tuesday unanimously approved a plan Brown advanced to lift the wage freeze and allow all eligible employees to move one rung up the salary ladder. A day later, Brown amended his plan, saying he will ask the control board for approval to move city employees as many steps up the salary tier as they missed during the 38-month-old wage freeze.

Brown and his chief fiscal adviser, Janet Penksa, proclaimed the raises "affordable," noting they would cost the city $2.2 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

But this plan assumed that only police officers who were not at the top salary scale -- or 55 people -- would receive substantial raises.

Raising the salaries of all 750 officers and many administrators whose salary increases are set by the police contract would add $7.2 million in additional costs. Still, Penksa insisted the city could afford the higher tab, noting that it has set aside $8.8 million in state aid.

"We have money tucked away for negotiations," Penksa said.

The raises would be affordable even in the long term, both Penksa and Brown insisted. They said retirements are projected to occur faster than earlier projections and expressed confidence that money could be saved in other areas.

The city also plans to hire at least 40 new police officers this year.

The police issue aside, Brown's plan to allow all eligible city employees to recoup any salary steps they missed hinges on winning State Legislature approval of a plan that would allow the control board to separate the city and its school district when it comes to wage freeze issues.

School officials have maintained that bringing thousands of employees up to the salary tiers that they would have been at without a wage freeze would trigger "devastating" cuts. As it is, they said the plan approved by the control board to give district employees one-step increases would cost $5.7 million in the coming year, and cause some pain in the longer term.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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