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Long-term deal would give firefighters raises, save city $32 million

Buffalo firefighters would see annual raises averaging 3.3 percent under a proposed contract that would alter shift schedules, staffing patterns, prescription drug coverage and make other changes the city says would save $32 million during the eight-year deal.

Firefighters would see their maximum base salary jump to $86,666 from $68, 461 under a new 9-step salary schedule that would replace the current 13-step schedule. They also would see a change to 24-hour shifts beginning Jan. 1, new efforts to ease injured firefighters back into work or retirement, and a generic drug mandate – all of which will help the city realize the projected savings, according to officials.

The proposed contract is estimated to cost $77.2 million over its eight years, with the $32 million in savings yielding a net cost of $45.2 million.

Firefighters Local 282 already has approved the contract and the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority unanimously voted this week to recommend the proposal to the Common Council.

Frederick G. Floss, a BFSA member, said the eight-year term of the contract allows the city to plan and balance its budgets better.

"What’s been important is that we’re never going to be able to understand whether we can balance our budget until we have all of our contracts up to date. So for a long period of time, when the teachers and everybody were without a contract, it was hard for the city to budget," said Floss, an economics and finance professor at SUNY Buffalo State. "As we go from these three-year contracts and four-year contracts to five-year and six-year contracts, that allows the city to know what their costs are going to be. It gives (the city) more certainty, and that’s worth something."

Floss also said the level of projected savings in the proposed contract is realistic.

"It’s a reasonable level, but more important, it’s a conservative level," Floss said. "We have to change the way we think about some of these contracts because when you have a three-year contract, the growth rates didn’t make very much difference in the bottom line with the savings and the costs; but as we go out to five and seven years, the compounding effects are going to be greater. So those savings are going to be much greater."

George K. Arthur, another control board member and former Common Council president, agreed that the projected savings, at least for now, are practical.

"Today it is," Arthur said. "I feel comfortable we can reach the projections as they were presented today. The question mark becomes what happens with the economy and the future of the markets."

However, the proposed contract covers the eight-year period from July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2025, which is three years beyond the city’s current financial plan, which covers 2019 to 2022. The control board advised the city to forecast beyond that current financial plan to evaluate the impact the increased labor costs will have on future budgets.

From the Fire Department’s standpoint, the proposed contract "really gives us that organizational stability," Fire Commissioner William Renaldo told the control board.  "It gives us the opportunity to think and act more strategically over the span of" the eight-year contract.

Local 282 President Vincent Ventresca also pointed to the length of the deal.

"The nice thing is, with the long term deal, we don’t have to get right back to the table to negotiate again. We can start working on making the department better, and I think that’s where we’re headed," Ventresca said.

The Brown administration praised the deal Thursday, with a spokesman saying by text that it provides "budget certainty" until 2025 "with annual increases of less than 1 percent of the overall city budget."

The agreement includes no salary increase the first year but a 2 percent increase dating back to July 1, 2018. Salaries would increase 4 percent annually for 2019 through 2022, then increase 3 percent annually through the end of the pact.

That’s an increase of 26.6 percent — or $18,205 — over the term of the contract. The average annual increase is 3.3 percent — or $2,276.

A significant change is that Local 282 employees would work a 24-hour shift schedule beginning Jan. 1. Firefighters work "tours" in which they put in 48 hours during an eight-day period. Currently, that means two 9-hour shifts and two 15-hour shifts. The new schedule would have them work two 24-hour shifts, which negotiators said would result in the equivalent of 12 more workers per shift.

Negotiators project $5.6 million in savings from those types of staffing changes. The proposal also projects savings of:

• $6.3 million from a generic prescription drug mandate on all new prescriptions.

• $2.4 million from the reduction of sick time to 8 hours per month from 9 hours for each employee.

• $9.4 million by encouraging employees who are currently on long-term "injured on duty" status and unable to work to retire with a service disability pension.

•$2.7 million by giving light-duty tasks to union members who are on "injured on duty" status but have been medically cleared to handle functions like delivering air tanks and fire extinguishers or sweeping, mopping and washing dishes. Such staffing will be used to manage overtime.

• $4.2 million in annual retirements and $1.4 million in a variety of other changes.

The agreement was approved by the union on Oct. 12 by a vote of 484 to 41. It would cover 742 budgeted positions including firefighters, lieutenants, captains, battalion chiefs and division chiefs.

Retroactive payments would be available for employees who retired between July 1, 2018 and the date the agreement is ratified.

The agreement will be ready for Common Council consideration at its Dec. 11 meeting.

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