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Former Lockport fire chief cashing in on retirement

LOCKPORT – The City of Lockport has paid retired Fire Chief Thomas J. Passuite $95,950 in a retirement buyout so far, with more to come.

Corporation Counsel John J. Ottaviano confirmed that the city will pay Passuite an additional amount for compensatory time he said he earned but did not use before his retirement in December. However, the amount hasn’t been determined.

“Blackley’s working on that,” said Ottaviano, referring to his deputy, David E. Blackley.

Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey confirmed that the city will pay Passuite for the comp time. “It is my understanding that was the agreement 20 years ago when he became chief,” McCaffrey said.

“He’ll get something. We’ve got to get a solid number and everybody has to agree on it,” said Mary Pat Holz, the city’s civil service secretary.

Passuite said he hadn’t heard from City Hall about the comp time he sought.

“I tried to use some of it up the last couple of years, but I couldn’t use it all,” said Passuite, who estimated that about 200 hours of comp time are at issue.

According to city payroll information obtained by The Buffalo News through a Freedom of Information request, Passuite’s pay rate at the end of his 34-year Fire Department career was $42.60 per hour. Two hundred hours of comp time at that rate would be $8,520 before taxes.

“I never got paid overtime,” said Passuite, 65, who left the firefighters’ union about a year after he became chief.

In all, the city paid him $211,005 in 2014, only $86,905 of which was his base salary. The exit buyout, comp time and vacation sell-backs accounted for the rest.

The defining moment on compensation for him was a major fire at the old Wisniewski motorcycle repair shop on Gooding Street on Memorial Day 1995. “I must have spent 20 hours there,” Passuite said.

He submitted a claim for overtime, but City Clerk and Budget Richard P. Mullaney and Sandra Mottorn, the city’s longtime payroll clerk, broke the bad news: no overtime for a nonunion department head.

Passuite said he mentioned the matter to then-Police Chief Henry Newman, who told Passuite that he had been keeping track of comp time for himself, and suggested that Passuite do the same.

So, since 1995, Passuite said, he has been keeping track of time spent on his duties beyond eight hours a day, five days a week.

“I put in countless hours, I can’t tell you how many hours I put in taking work home,” Passuite said. He said at the city’s request, he spent a large amount of time trying to work out a new schedule for the Fire Department, compressing the current four-platoon format down to three. The result never was instituted, as the city and the union failed to agree on it.

He also worked on grants. “Since 2004, I have secured, on my own, $650,000 in grant money for the city,” Passuite said. “That’s free money. We bought two fire trucks for the city, an air compressor and we got a weight room out of it. I never even got a thank-you for doing that.”

Holz said Passuite was known for not taking time off. “In the time I’ve worked here in civil service, he maybe used one sick day,” Holz said.

And those unused sick days made up the bulk of his buyout when he left the chief’s office for the last time Dec. 11. Payroll records show Passuite was paid for 1,796 hours of sick time, which worked out to $85,309.

Holz said that was 50 percent of the value of the unused sick time, in line with city policy.

Most of the rest of Passuite’s exit payment came from the value of selling vacation time back to the city, something many city employees do every year.

Holz said the rules in effect mean a double payment for employees who can’t or won’t take the vacation time to which they are entitled.

They are paid for the value of the vacation allotment, and they are paid their regular salaries for working instead of taking off. Vacation buyouts must be done annually, instead of accumulating as sick time does.

“With all the stuff going on, it was hard to take time off,” Passuite said. “You can’t leave anybody in charge who doesn’t know what’s going on. If I was on vacation, I’d have been thinking about the work piling up.”

email: tprohaska@buffnews,com