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Fiscal board airs alarm on overtime cost

Buffalo's control board sounded alarm bells Wednesday about skyrocketing overtime for fire and police services, its chairwoman accusing some workers of "exploiting" the system to pad future pensions.

"I wish we could all be so lucky to basically control our earnings," said Alair Townsend after the oversight panel learned that overtime costs in the Police and Fire departments continue to run millions of dollars over budget.

But city officials argued that vacant positions, criminal probes and special public safety initiatives have driven up overtime. They said new police and fire recruits should help reduce overtime.

If current trends continue, the control board warned, Fire Department overtime could exceed its annual budget by nearly $3.8 million -- or 47 percent. The Police Department could exceed its overtime budget by $2.5 million -- or 35 percent.

Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson noted that detectives use overtime to conduct homicide and narcotics investigations -- work that can't be put off until their next shift.

"It's kind of like a dog on a scent," Gipson said. "They have to stay on a case."

But Gipson didn't dispute Townsend's assertion that many employees nearing retirement work more overtime in order to beef up their pensions. Officers know their rights and know how to "maximize the system," said Gipson, who added that the department is reviewing ways to reduce overtime "where possible."

Fire Commissioner Michael S. Lombardo has long argued that his department is operating with far fewer firefighters than in past years. The number of uniformed firefighters is down by more than 10 percent since 2005, according to control board data.

Also during Wednesday's meeting, the oversight panel received what Chairman Paul J. Kolkmeyer described as a "sobering assessment" of the impact that proposed state cuts could have on school district finances.

Under Gov. David A. Paterson's proposed budget, city schools would start budget deliberations with a projected $52 million shortfall. Gary M. Crosby, the district's chief financial and operations officer, said the best-case scenario would leave the Board of Education with a $26 million budget hole.

While Crosby said officials are determined to avoid spending cuts that could hinder academic achievement, he warned that the "horrible crisis" could result in fallout.

"This will inevitably make its way into the classroom in some way, shape or form," Crosby said.

The control board also unanimously approved a new contract that will give school bus aides 10 percent raises. About 600 employees represented by the Transportation Aides of Buffalo will see their first raises since 2003. Top pay for bus aides will rise to $10 an hour from $9.05, retroactive to Jan. 26. Starting aides will make $8.43 an hour.

"It's just the first step," said Betty Martin, who heads the union that represents the bus aides. "We're not at a living wage yet, but it's a step in the right direction."

The new pact will cost the school system an additional $1.5 million over the next four years. Bus aides work five hours a day. While they may enroll in the system's health insurance plan, they must pay 100 percent of the premiums.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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