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City, Olmsted Parks Conservancy report progress toward agreement

Many people will likely flock to local parks later this week as the region prepares to bask in summerlike weather.

This early gift from Mother Nature raises a question in Buffalo: What's up with talks between the city and the nonprofit group that maintains the six historic Olmsted parks and connecting parkways?

"We're making tremendous progress on coming to an agreement," replied Thomas Herrera-Mishler, president and chief executive officer of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy.

Without divulging details of the lengthy bargaining, Herrera-Mishler informed Common Council members Monday that the city has sent the conservancy an offer, and the group has submitted a counter proposal.

Herrera-Mishler told The Buffalo News last week, he is cautiously optimistic that a final agreement will be announced soon.

City Finance Commissioner Janet Penksa Tuesday gave the Council an upbeat progress report on the talks.

"They've been very positive. We are working through the numbers with them," she said.

The Council unanimously approved a plan Tuesday that provides $300,000 in city funding to the conservancy. Penksa said the measure was required to address the group's "cash flow issue." City officials said the money will allow the conservancy to meet its payroll as the busy season approaches.

Under the terms of the 2004 pact between Buffalo and Erie County, the conservancy would continue to maintain most of the city's largest parks through at least the end of this year. But negotiators have underscored the importance of finalizing a long-term deal. The city reclaimed control of its parks this year, terminating a maintenance agreement with the county.

One lingering issue has been whether the conservancy would be required to pay employees a higher "living wage" under a city law that has been on the books for several years.

Under the law, the city and companies that have contracts with it must pay workers at least $10.57 an hour if health benefits are offered, or $11.87 without benefits.

The Council received a letter Tuesday afternoon from Buffalo's Living Wage Commission that recommends a partial exemption from wage requirements for the conservancy.

The compromise would exempt the group from paying the living wage through 2010. Under the plan, the city and conservancy would work to find sufficient money to phase in the living wage starting in 2011, with an understanding that there would be full compliance by 2013.

Any seasonal or temporary employees who are in youth training, welfare-to-work or any subsidized programs would not have to be paid the living wage for as long as the contract is in place with the conservancy. The group already pays full-time permanent staff salaries that are in compliance with the living wage.

Granting exemptions from the living wage based simply on "financial challenges" facing the city and its contractors does not comply with the goals of the law, Commission Chairwoman Lou Jean Fleron said.

The commission can only make recommendations. The mayor and Common Council would have to make a final decision on living wage provisions.

On a related topic, the Council delayed action on a conservancy plan to raise fees at city golf courses. Lawmakers are at odds over how much city and non-residents should be charged. The issue could be reconsidered at a special meeting later this week or early next week.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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