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In Falls Fire Dept., underlings sometimes earn more than chief

It's no wonder high-ranking firefighters in the Niagara Falls Fire Department don't want to be chief.

After all, who would want to take a pay cut of as much as a $60,000 just to be able to say they're the boss?

In a city as poor as Niagara Falls, the approximately $83,900 fire chief salary isn't a bad wage. And it's about $13,000 more than the 2010 base pay for unionized battalion chiefs -- who are one step below the fire chief.

But in an extreme example of underlings making more than the boss, the seven Niagara Falls battalion chiefs in 2010 each earned between $96,350 and $145,000 -- that's $12,000 to $60,000 more than the recently raised fire chief's salary.

The discrepancy is largely a function of overtime as well as some union benefits -- such as training pay, special duty pay, and pay for briefing time -- which battalion chiefs get and the fire chief doesn't.

In fact, in a city where unionized firefighters earn roughly as much as firefighters in Buffalo -- a city five times the size of Niagara Falls -- more than a dozen unionized Niagara Falls firefighters filled the gap between their base pay and the chief's with overtime alone, a Buffalo News analysis found.

So when it was time to look for a new chief in Niagara Falls, the city initially got about two dozen resumes. But none were from the battalion chiefs -- the people, some would say, who have the best qualifications.

"The battalion chiefs you would think of being in the logical candidate pool, but the way it is structured, they're not likely to be applying for the full-time position," Mayor Paul A. Dyster said.

An analysis by The Buffalo News of municipal payrolls in Erie and Niagara counties found it's not unusual for bosses to make less than the people working for them.

But, the analysis also found that the Niagara Falls situation is unusual -- partly because so many of Niagara Falls' unionized firefighters make more than the chief, but also because none of the battalion chiefs want to be fire chief.

"Why would anybody do that?" asked Battalion Chief Gregory Colangelo. "More responsibility, more headaches, basically not much more compensation. Me personally, though, I already enjoy what I'm doing and am not looking for a change."

"Do you want to work at the fire hall or do you want to work at City Hall?" Battalion Chief Daniel Boland asked. "That's a big factor for a lot of people. Some people just aren't administrators, and they don't have an interest in administration. It's not a firefighting job."

The analysis was part of an ongoing review of municipal budgets by The News, which previously reported that some municipalities permit lucrative retirement sellbacks, resulting in six-figure payouts..

> Collins ranks 88th

The review looking at disparities in pay between bosses and their subordinates found that, in Erie County government, County Executive Chris Collins ranks 88th in terms of pay.

Collins' two executive assistants each make $19,000 more than the county executive.

The deputy comptroller makes $11,000 more than the comptroller. And the undersheriff makes about $30,000 more than the sheriff. In fact, some 150 people in the Sheriff's Office made more last year than Sheriff Timothy B. Howard.

That's not the way things work in Niagara County government, where the top 12 highest paid include the county manager, sheriff, district attorney and three other department heads. Only two sheriff's deputies make more than the sheriff.

But in the City of Buffalo, 35 police officers made more than the police commissioner last year. Fifteen firefighters made more than the fire commissioner. And Mayor Byron W. Brown's pay didn't even make the top 100 list.

It's a similar story -- though to a lesser extent -- in some suburban communities, where, as is the case with Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Erie County, overtime and union perks as well as political decisions often turn the payroll paradigm topsy-turvy, creating the situation where bosses are paid less than the people working for them.

In Niagara Falls, the highest base salary in city government goes to the city administrator, who made $109,000. The mayor earns $76,207. Twenty-seven city employees made more than the administrator last year; 166 made more than the mayor. Most were police and firefighters.

Thirty members of the approximately 145-member Niagara Falls Fire Department earned more in 2010 than the fire chief's 2011 salary of $83,908. Among the 30 were the seven battalion chiefs, whose pay ranged from $96,000 to $145,000. Three of those battalion chiefs also made more than the Buffalo fire commissioner, who makes about $25,000 more than the Niagara Falls chief.

These numbers do not reflect back pay unionized Niagara Falls firefighters received in 2010 after their 2008 and 2009 contract was settled. Those one-time payments represented as much as $9,000 to some firefighters. The union is currently working without a contract and negotiating a pact that would be retroactive to 2010.

> 'A rare occurrence'

The Niagara Falls fire chief's salary, meanwhile, was recently increased, along with all the city's exempt department heads. The chief's position increased from $79,000 to the current $83,900.

Chief Roger Melchior was fired in February after he posted racial comments on an online message board.

Also, two of the battalion chiefs -- those with the most overtime in 2010 -- retired this year, Boland said, and the department does not have a deputy chief and is generally undermanned.

"This is pretty abnormal," Boland said. "I just think this is a rare occurrence, and once the department comes to full staff, it'll end."

It's not just overtime that pushed the battalion chiefs' salaries above the fire chief's.

In 2010, four battalion chiefs received about $6,400 for uniforms, training and training pay. The other two battalion chiefs, because of extra training and special assignments, received more than $12,800 each. Those amounts include the 3 percent raises for 2008 and 2009, which were negotiated in 2010 and paid that year.

The fire chief is provided with a city car and gets holiday pay, but not extra benefits.

While the city has had problems filling the fire chief job in the past, Dyster said the city's trouble filling the chief's job this year goes beyond pay issues for the battalion chiefs, and he and Boland pointed to increased job security in the union ranks.

The position can become politicized, Dyster said, and because the chief serves at the pleasure of the mayor, there's no guarantee a chief hired now would keep his job if Dyster was not re-elected in November.

If a firefighter became the chief, he would only be able to return to his previous job if his civil service position was reserved, Dyster said. And while state law exempts firefighters from a citywide residency rule, the chief must live in the city.

> Eyeing an incentive

The mayor favors creating a civil service position for the chief job to add security, as well as increasing the salary to attract candidates.

In Buffalo, base pay for the fire chief is $108,045 -- about $30,000 above the base pay of a division chief -- the civil service rank below chief.

"It's a question of whether we want our senior officers to be competing for the position of chief. The way we have it structured now, because the chief makes less than the top ranking senior officers, we always find ourselves going outside the department to find a chief."

City Council Chairman Sam Fruscione opposes raising the salary. "To me, [it's] a very good salary for a Niagara Falls employee," Fruscione said. "We have one of the lowest costs of living in the USA."

Though no battalion chiefs have applied, others in the department have -- potentially creating the situation where a firefighter could bypass middle management and become chief.

"As much as battalion chiefs may not be interested in becoming fire chief, they also weren't interested in having someone junior become chief," the mayor said.