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Lockport applies for federal grant to cover cost of one firefighter

LOCKPORT – A federal grant that the City of Lockport applied for Friday would pay to hire only one firefighter, officials revealed at the Fire Board meeting.

It also was disclosed at the meeting that, six months after the Common Council authorized the sale of the city’s two ambulances, they are locked in the city garage for fear that the city might lose its arbitration case to the firefighters union and have to resume ambulance service.

Acting Fire Chief Patrick K. Brady, who was offered a permanent appointment as chief during the meeting, reported on the SAFER – Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response – grant application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

He said that if a city seeks money to fill vacancies in the existing Fire Department roster, its request goes to the end of the line, since the main purpose of the grant is to rehire firefighters laid off because of financial problems. Lockport laid off a dozen firefighters in 2013 and 2014 because of the city’s financial crisis, but the Council voted against applying for money to rehire some of them.

Instead, the Council voted to seek money to fill prospective vacancies, but Brady told the Fire Board that is not allowed. Only vacancies that existed when the application period opened in February can be filled with the SAFER money, and the only vacancy on the current roster was the one created by the Dec. 11 retirement of Fire Chief Thomas J. Passuite.

The grant would go for a firefighter’s salary, not that of the chief, Brady said.

There was disagreement over whether the Council knew that the money couldn’t be used for vacancies that haven’t occurred yet. Alderman Patrick W. Schrader, a Fire Board member, said the Council knew; Common Council President Joseph C. Kibler said, “I don’t think we knew that.”

Brady said Friday, “I did address that with them in an email and then again on the night of the (Council) meeting, during the recess.” During the Feb. 18 meeting, the Council left the dais and huddled with Brady in the back room. The audience was not told what they discussed.

Meanwhile, Municipal Training Officer Luca C.P. Quagliano, reciting information about the Fire Department’s vehicle fleet to the Fire Board, said the ambulances are still in the city garage.

Corporation Counsel John J. Ottaviano said, “You can’t sell them until this PERB issue is resolved,” referring to the state Public Employment Relations Board, which is now hearing a firefighters’ union grievance over the abolition of city-run ambulance service.

“Whenever you’re in litigation, you don’t know. You can’t fully predict any outcome,” Bryan J. Goldberger, the city’s Albany-based attorney for firefighter labor issues, said in a telephone interview Friday. He said that if there were an arbitration decision that the city violated the union’s contract in ending city ambulance service in September, the city “would be in a very difficult position” if it had no ambulances. He said he expected the arbitration and litigation over it to take up most of this year, with the possibility of even going into 2016.

The city has applied to the state Financial Restructuring Board for advice and possible cash grants. Goldberger said that the city and the fire union could decide to have that board arbitrate their disputes instead of PERB.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com