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Tucker bemoans retiree health care cost Lockport mayor says taxpayers can't afford it

Mayor Michael W. Tucker fired a warning shot across the bow of the city's unions Tuesday, warning in his State of the City address and a subsequent interview that he aims to reduce the city work force by attrition and try to control the cost of retirees' health benefits.

Although the tax rate for 2009 was reduced slightly from the previous year, the city's total spending this year is budgeted to rise about $1 million, Tucker said at a Rotary Club meeting in the Lockport Town and Country Club.

"The overwhelming majority of this increase is directly attributed to the increase of health care benefits, retirement and other legacy costs for our employees," Tucker said. "The city taxpayers simply cannot shoulder this type of increase in expenses year after year. Therefore, steps must be taken now to promote the balance of efficient services with a fair tax burden. Attrition and job sharing [are] necessary."

All five city unions are currently working under terms of contracts that expired at the end of 2007, and negotiations are under way.
Tucker said after the speech he does not envision a city hiring freeze, because some jobs that become vacant may be necessary to keep filled.

"But certainly I'm reluctant to hire people. Last year we added four people [building inspectors and their staff] and that had a big impact on the bottom line. As people retire, wherever I can get away with not replacing them, that's what I'm going to try to do," the mayor said.

Tucker said the problem he sees is not so much in health benefits for current employees -- the unions agreed to a single-provider plan in their last contracts that saved the city millions -- but in benefits for former workers.

"We're open to everything in negotiations," said Randall Parker, president of the Lockport Professional Firefighters Association. "We don't say yes or no to anything until we see what it's all about."

He said the city has made no proposal to his union yet. Barbara Parker, president of the city's unit of the Civil Service Employees Association, said the same.

Tucker said the decision he and the Common Council made in the fall of 2007 to add more building inspectors is paying off. The five-man staff conducted more than 1,100 inspections in 2008 and sent a record 101 cases to Housing Court for enforcement.

"We're going to take it street by street, block by block, and we're going to try to turn this city around," Tucker said in answer to a question from the audience.

Tucker warned that he expects the state and federal governments to try to pass some of their deficit burdens on to localities.

"My administration will do everything possible to curtail spending, take necessary steps toward more consolidation with other governments and maintain reserves within appropriate limits to ensure that our city is prepared for the storms that lie ahead," he said.

Tucker used part of his speech to praise positives, such as last summer's Molson Canal Concert Series that averaged 12,000 in attendance for each of eight Friday nights. Tucker said this year there will be nine shows, starting in late June.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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