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Lockport Council votes to seek grant to hire 4 firemen

LOCKPORT – The Lockport Common Council voted Wednesday, over the objections of Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey, to apply for a federal grant that would enable the city to rehire four of the firefighters laid off in 2013 and 2014 because of the city’s financial crisis.

The 5-1 vote by the Council, most of them endorsed by the firefighters’ union in last fall’s election, directed the city to apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a SAFER grant, which stands for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response.

Last year, the Council voted to seek SAFER funding to hire only one firefighter. That money was granted, totaling $212,298.

Under the SAFER rules, the federal government pays for the full cost of salary and current benefits for rehired firefighters for two years. After that, the city bears the full burden, unless it reapplies for more aid.

McCaffrey said she wouldn’t veto the grant application, but she made it clear she doesn’t support it. She said keeping four new firefighters on would cost the city $424,000 a year, equal to a 4 percent property tax increase. Also, if the newcomers last 20 years, the city would have to pay for full lifetime health insurance in retirement.

Alderman R. Joseph O’Shaughnessy, D-at large, called the latter objection “ludicrous,” saying the city intends to negotiate that benefit out of the next firefighters contract. The sides are currently at impasse, with state arbitration postponed from March 15 for at least two months. Alderman Richard E. Abbott, D-5th Ward, said, “If we put the extra firemen on, we might get some health concessions.”

Council President David R. Wohleben, R-4th Ward, cast the only vote against the application.

Abbott said the union is appealing a court decision that allowed the city to reduce staffing levels, and a defeat in court would mean the city would have to rehire firefighters on its own cost immediately.

The Fire Department currently has a 34-man roster. It has four eight-member platoons, and a minimum staffing level of seven men per shift. If firefighters are sick or on vacation, replacements are called in from other platoons and paid overtime for the entire shift. Last year, the city paid almost $330,000 in Fire Department overtime.

If the funding is approved in Washington, Brady said he would check with the laid-off men to see if they want to return. Of the 12 who were pink-slipped, five have already come back to replace retirees, and a sixth is expected to return next month because of a looming retirement.

Two are idle, while four others are working in other fire departments: two in North Tonawanda and one each in Niagara Falls and Batavia, officials said.