The city's finance committee was in the early stages of planning the 2020 budget when an arbitrator issued a decision that will force the city to find room for 12 new employees in its approximately $23 million budget.
Arbitrator Michael S. Lewandowski found the city violated its contract with the Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association in 2014 when it reduced the fire department's minimum staffing level from nine to six and laid off 12 firefighters. Lewandowski ordered the city to hire 12 firefighters and return Lockport Fire Department to nine members per shift "immediately."
That ruling has thrown a wrench into the city's budget planning process.
The 12 new firefighters would cost the city $936,000, as a new hire costs $78,000 in salary and benefits. The city also will have to retain four firefighters whose positions were funded by a grant that will expire around February, bringing the total cost to about $1.3 million, according to Finance Director Scott Schrader.
That expense would result in a 10.25 percent hike in the tax rate, Schrader said.
1st Ward Alderman Joseph Oates, who chairs the finance committee, said the council will consider cuts to other city services to try offset a large tax hike.
"We’ll go through the budget process now and put these additional workers in, and get the budget as reasonable as we can," Oates said.
“This will affect all the departments throughout the city," he added.
Oates and Mayor Michelle Roman said the city may be able to negotiate a plan to hire the firefighters over a period of months or years, potentially averting a major tax hike or deep cuts to other city departments.
Lewandowski's ruling said the city must return LFD to full staffing "immediately," though it did not provide an exact timeline.
City Attorney Allen Miskell said he believes the wording of the decision gives the city some leeway over when it hires the firefighters.
"He’s not saying you have to hire them this weekend, but put in a good faith effort toward getting the manpower," Miskell said.
However, Miskell added he believes the city will need to meet the new staffing requirement within one year.
The city has another option to partially cover the 16 firefighters' salaries — return ambulance service to the fire department.
In 2014, as the city faced a financial crisis, the council voted to discontinue LFD's ambulance service, as well as lay off 12 firefighters and reduce the minimum staffing level from nine to six. A private company, Twin City Ambulance, has since taken over that service, at no cost to the city.
LFD's ambulance service generated $711,000 in 2013. Firefighter Kevin Watier argued in 2017 that LFD could generate another $300,000 if it increases its bills to rates comparable to private ambulance services. Then-Mayor Anne McCaffrey, who is now CEO of Eastern Niagara Hospital, disputed that claim, saying 80 percent of LFD’s calls involved flat-rate payers, usually Medicare or Medicaid.
Roman said Friday that a "properly functioning ambulance service" could generate over half of LFD's annual budget, which was over $5 million in this year's adopted budget.
“It will also provide a much needed and reliable service to our residents," Roman said.
Restoring LFD's ambulance service would come with its own expenses, however.
During debates over ambulance service in 2017, Schrader said the city would have to spend $200,000 to purchase two new ambulances, $80,000 annually for a billing clerk and $50,000 annually for fuel, maintenance and insurance.
Oates said restoring ambulance service will be part of the budget conversations in the coming months. Oates said Wednesday he does not expect the city to receive much additional revenue from other sources, such as sales tax and state aid, which accounted for $3.95 million and $2.65 million in the 2019 adopted budget, respectively.
"We’d have to look at any source of revenue we can get to offset those costs," he said.