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City reaches accord with unions on Fruit Belt parking plan

Buffalo on Friday announced it has reached an agreement with the powerful Civil Service Employees Association that city officials believe will pave the way for a residential parking plan in the Fruit Belt.

With the CSEA backing the plan, and other unions agreeing not to oppose it, Buffalo’s city and state officials believe the necessary enabling legislation will be approved by the State Legislature before its session ends in mid-June, and then be signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Once approved, it’s expected to take another 45 days or so for the city to work out details and implement a residential parking permit system, according to city Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer.

The permit parking area would be bordered by East North Street, Michigan Avenue, Rose Street and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Within that area, half the parking on any street will be designated for residents, and the other half will be for the general public, which incudes Medical Campus employees.

All parking in the designated area, including the permit parking, will remain free.

The actual implementation of the program and issues such as visitor passes for residents have yet to be worked out.

The program will be a two-year pilot.

The agreement was lauded during a press conference held at the Moot Center, located in the Fruit Belt.

Politicians, including Mayor Byron W. Brown and Council President Darius G. Pridgen joined Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes and State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy to thank residents and union representatives as well as each other for the work everyone has done to get the agreement.

Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat, is again introducing enabling legislation into the Democratic-controlled Assembly, which is almost assured to pass. Kennedy, also a Democrat, introduced similar legislation into the Republican-led Senate, where passage is less certain. But Kennedy says he’s hopeful the union support will ensure passage in the Senate.

Last year, similar legislation passed the Assembly but was stalled in the Senate because of opposition from the CSEA. The union objected because the city’s plan would have created a permit parking program that precluded Medical campus employees from parking in the Fruit Belt.

Fruit Belt residents have been requesting a resident permit parking system because so many Medical Campus employees park on their streets, that the residents can’t find a place to park when they come home from work or from shopping.

But CSEA argued that their lower-wage employees cannot afford to park in the pay-to-park lots and garages on the Medical Campus. The union last year convinced the State Senate not to approve the enabling legislation needed for Buffalo to enact a permit parking program.

Pridgen then promised to bring the unions into the conversation, and make another attempt at getting the enabling legislation passed.

The process wasn’t completely smooth.

The unions, working with residents and the elected officials, initially agreed to a system where half the Fruit Belt parking would be set aside for Medical Campus employees earning $35,000 or less annually.

But CSEA officials in Albany objected, according to several people involved in the talks.

Two other unions who had been involved, Communication Workers of America and 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers were then left out of the remaining talks while the CSEA continued meeting with some neighborhood leaders and elected officials to hammer out the agreement now being planned – with half the parking going to residents and the other half to the general public, including Medical Campus employees.

SEIU and CWA union representatives who attended Friday’s press conference said they don’t like the new agreement because it permits highly paid doctors, for example, to park for free in the Fruit Belt.

Cori Gambini, the local CWA 68 president, and Jim Scordato, local vice president of 1199SEIU, said they will not be signing the agreement. However, both also said their unions will not oppose the enabling legislation in Albany.

“We fully support the community,” Scordato said of the Fruit Belt.

Since the agreement is a two-year pilot, the union leaders said they hope to remain involved in future talks.

CSEA Western Region President Florence Tripi was not available to  comment Friday on the CWA and SEIU objections, but Saturday responded that she was surprised to hear of  their concerns.

The  Albany  CSEA office, she said, was involved throughout the  discussions. When the original tentative agreement was  worked out allowing employees earning up to $35,000 annually to park in the  Fruit Belt, she said, the  Albany CSEA  was told of the  agreement. That plan called for the workers to  pay up to $50 a month, on a sliding scale, based  on  their  income to park in the Fruit Belt, Tripi said.  The Albany office did some research and objected, asking why employees would have to pay for public parking, Tripi said.

In addition, Tripi said,  the unions  at  that point thought  the agreement  allowed for  parking on both sides of the Fruit Belt streets,  but  residents wanted to  keep the  current  alternative  side of  the  street  parking, the union  later learned. Tripi said her office then received  a call from the mayor’s office, inviting  the CSEA  to a meeting. The mayor and Pridgen as well as aides to Peoples-Stokes  and Kennedy were there, she  said. “We had no idea who was coming,” she  said. “We were the only union there.” “The mayor, Darius talked  to us.  They are the ones  that came up with the  proposal,” she said, referring  to the revised plan.  It was Pridgen’s idea to split the  parking  between  residents  and  the  general  public,  Tripi said. The employee fee idea was dropped, she said. The Albany CSEA office agreed to the plan,  Tripi   said, since union workers  parking  in the  Fruit  Belt  would no longer  be  asked  to pay to park on the  city streets. “It was  a quick meeting,”  she  said.  “We had  no idea  the CWA  or  SEIU were not  invited.”