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Nonresidents might seek police exam refunds

Dozens of people who took Buffalo's police exam but were disqualified because they didn't live in the city are weighing a possible court fight to try to get reimbursements for the $25 test fees they paid.

"I've had about 40 people contact me so far," said Tracy Dale Sammarco, an attorney who has done legal work for some city unions.

Sammarco declined to discuss specifics, but she confirmed there has been discussion about launching a class-action lawsuit. No final decision has been made, she said.

About half of the nearly 2,700 people who passed the April exam were later ruled ineligible because they didn't live in the city at least 90 days before taking the test.

The city conducted an aggressive nationwide recruitment for a "different breed of officer." But after test results came in, city officials said the U.S. Justice Department determined that Buffalo had to limit its hirings to city residents, because that's the only way it would meet minority hiring mandates required by the federal government.

The exam notice and application cautioned people that Buffalo remains under a federal court order. This disclosure, city officials have argued, made it clear that even if applicants scored high on the list, they might not become officers.

But Mike Sander, who lived on Grand Island at the time he took the exam, said there was no mention that nonresidents might be ruled ineligible. If anything, Sander said, the city's aggressive recruitment efforts in the suburbs and beyond Western New York sent hopeful signs to nonresidents. Sander said he might join a class-action lawsuit if one is launched.

"It's not about the $25 fee," Sander said Wednesday. "It's an issue of principle."

Sander moved to Buffalo from Grand Island last month. He said he was told by a recruiter that a new police class would likely be appointed early next year and that establishing residency before that happened could enhance his chances of being hired. But he said at no time did anyone tell him there was a chance he would be ineligible because he was living in a suburb when he applied for the exam.

"It was a real kick in the gut when I found out," said Sander, who scored in the top 25 percent of the nearly 2,700 people who took the test.

City officials repeatedly have said they sympathize with nonresidents who took the test.

Buffalo Corporation Counsel Alisa A. Lukasiewicz said the city had no choice but to comply with federal overseers' decision. If there's a lawsuit seeking reimbursements for the exam fee, Lukasiewicz said, the city shouldn't be the target.

"I would expect the defendant should be the Bush administration's Department of Justice," she said.

The city could have fought the hiring process, Lukasiewicz acknowledged, but it would have come with a price: Plans to hire 100 officers in 2008 would have faced lengthy delays.

"The alternative is no police officers being hired and possibly years of litigation," she said.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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