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Appellate court rules that Lockport firefighters can arbitrate staffing cuts

LOCKPORT – A state appeals court ruled last week that City of Lockport firefighters are entitled to state arbitration on the issue of the reduction of staffing on each shift resulting from the abolition of the city’s ambulance service in September 2014.

The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court on Friday unanimously upheld a December 2014 ruling by State Supreme Court Justice Frank Caruso that the city was not allowed to stop the arbitration sought by the firefighters union, but it emphasized that it was not taking sides in the dispute over whether the city was allowed by the union contract to cut staffing and do away with city ambulances.

That, the Rochester-based five-judge panel said, is “a matter for the arbitrator to resolve.”

The Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association filed for arbitration even before the city parked the ambulances, because the city moved in April 2014 to reduce the required minimum number of firefighters on a shift to seven, from nine, as a means of reducing the department’s overtime costs.

The minimum personnel level was cut to six after the city turned ambulance duties over to Twin City Ambulance.

The union’s contract requires that the city must “staff all equipment with adequate firefighters … to assure the safety of the staff.” But it also allowed the city to cut staffing below nine firefighters per shift “to account for changes in population, technology, apparatus or other relevant circumstances.”

The city argued that its 2013-14 financial crisis, when it almost went broke and had to be bailed out by emergency borrowing approved by the State Legislature, was a relevant circumstance.

The city also tried to argue that the nine-firefighter guarantee was a job security clause, which is exempt from arbitration, but Caruso didn’t agree. He said that it was a worker safety clause, and Friday the appellate court agreed.

Deputy Corporation Counsel David E. Blackley commented, “We’ll take a look at it and make some decisions as to whether we take it farther down the road in terms of appealing it.”

But since the decision was unanimous, there is no automatic right to appeal. The state Court of Appeals can simply refuse to hear the case.

“A decision like this is one of those small steps toward resolution. I don’t think it’s an all-out victory,” Blackley said.

“Obviously, it’s something we can arbitrate,” said Samuel G. Oakes, who succeeded the retiring Kevin W. Pratt as union president Friday. “Hopefully, we can move forward. The mayor (Anne E. McCaffrey) has alluded to me that she’d like to sit down and work something out.”