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City gets burned again; Arbitration ruling favoring firefighters shows the need to revise Taylor Law

The recent arbitration ruling mandating that the City of Buffalo pay firefighters retroactive raises dating back to 2002 is another example of arbitration rulings that favor unions without regard to a municipality's ability to pay.

The decision again shows how municipalities are handicapped by the 1967 Taylor Law and the 1982 Triborough Amendment. The Taylor Law gives public workers rights to organize and bargain exclusively, while the Triborough Amendment ensures that public-sector benefits and pay remain intact until the two sides agree on a new contract.

Triborough should be repealed and the Taylor Law amended to acknowledge the interests of taxpayers while allowing unions to negotiate effectively.

With this latest ruling, the fire union estimates that its members are due at least $9 million, with many firefighters likely to receive $14,000 to $20,000 in retroactive pay. And when other tax obligations are factored in, the city's hit could exceed $13 million.

This is a salary increase without having to go to the negotiating table, or having to endure increases in medical insurance or pension contributions. It's the salient point about binding arbitration for uniformed services, which gives public unions no incentive to negotiate. At least in private unions, contracts terminate.

City attorneys and budget officials are reviewing the award, as is the state control board overseeing Buffalo's finances.

And then there's still the question of whether or not the retroactive raises would apply to the 38-month wage freeze imposed by the control board. The freeze was lifted in early 2007.

Fire union President Daniel Cunningham believes that even with the latest award, firefighters are underpaid. He is still bitter over another arbitration ruling under which he said the city "illegally" imposed a single health insurer on firefighters. The city has since been forced to allow them the option of enrolling in more expensive coverage, with the city, meaning taxpayers, absorbing all costs. And, to his discredit, Cunningham recently threatened to instruct all firefighters to sign up for the city's most costly health insurance plan.

No one is disputing the importance of the job firefighters do. After all, they run into burning buildings when others are running out. It's their job and they do it quite well for a city that many of them may feel underappreciates their services. Of course, that is far from the case, whether speaking of City Hall or citizen taxpayer.

However, it is nothing less than unconscionable when public unions fail to acknowledge an economy in serious decline over the past several years and a municipality receiving less state aid. Cunningham pointed out the city's record surplus -- based on figures supplied to a News reporter, Buffalo's reserves approach $143 million -- but he's ignoring the rapid pace in which that money will likely dwindle under crushing arbitration awards given to public unions.

Granted, the city has set aside several million dollars for future liabilities and its long-range balance sheets have accounted for the possibility that it might have to pay firefighters substantial retroactive raises, but that doesn't mitigate the financial impact on a poor city with a declining population.

It's still more money out the door without anything in return at the negotiating table.

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