Lockport officials reject bid to appeal ruling on fire staff

City officials rejected a bid on Wednesday to appeal a judge's ruling in support of an arbitrator's decision that mandated an increase in minimum staffing levels for the Lockport Fire Department.   

Mayor Michelle Roman cast the deciding vote on the issue, breaking a tie among common council members who were asked to support a resolution sponsored by Alderman-at-large Ellen Schratz which sought to direct the mayor and the corporation counsel's office to file an appeal.

Schratz, First Ward Alderman Joseph Oates and Fourth Ward Alderman Kelly VanDeMark all voted in support of the resolution during Wednesday's common council meeting.

Joining Roman in opposing the measure were Fifth Ward Alderman Rick Abbott, Second Ward Alderman Luke Kantor and Third Ward Alderman Mark Devine. 

The resolution sought council support for an appeal of a ruling from Niagara County Supreme Court Justice Frank Caruso who previously ordered the city to implement the arbitrator's award. 

In keeping with the arbitrator's decision, the city will now need to hire 12 additional firefighters, increasing the minimum number of firefighters per shift from six to nine.

It is unclear when the positions will need to be added or if the city could split the amount to be hired annually. Estimates have previously suggested the additional firefighters could cost more than $1 million. The 2020 budget does not have funding in it to cover the positions. 

Oates raised the possibility of filing the notice of appeal and then continuing negotiations before filing a formal appeal.

City Attorney David Haylett said, in general, cases would be due within six months. Haylett did note the fire union could move to speed up filing of the actual appeal. 

Devine, a former firefighter and adamant opponent of appealing, reiterated that the city has already lost the appeal four times. 

Roman read a letter from Lockport Professional Firefighters Association President Christopher Lane, who could not attend the meeting because of social distancing guidelines. In his letter, Lane told city lawmakers they would squander any goodwill for negotiating the hiring with the union if they appealed again. 

"You can be part of the solution and feel good about implementing a plan that both parties can agree upon or you could risk losing for the fifth time and lose any negotiation power ... the firefighters recognize the city is in difficult financial times and that's why we are willing to negotiate," Lane said. "When the local 963 prevails for the fifth and final time, I will have an extremely, if not impossible task, trying to convince the majority of the membership to continue to negotiate."

Schratz said she sponsored the resolution calling for an appeal due to uncertainty surrounding budgets at the local, state and federal level in light of the impact of COVID-19. 

"We have no idea what our finances are right now. We are in the middle of this terrible virus and emergency, so we can't negotiate with the firemen and ...we could keep negotiating and stop the appeal afterward," Schratz said.

Haylett and Roman both told council members that the fire union had expressed a willingness to figure out a plan that could lessen the financial burden on the city, with a possibility of hiring a certain number of firefighters over the course of a few years. 

VanDeMark asked if the city had anything in writing acknowledging the union's willingness to negotiate a deal of that nature.  

"Because, right now, I cant vote for something that's going to cost us a million dollars if we don't have anything definite," VanDeMark said. 

Roman quickly retorted, "it's going to cost you a million dollars when you lose." 

"It's just a matter of when you start implementing it," she added. 

Roman also noted the ruling from the arbitrator doesn't require the city to immediately hire the firefighters if the union agrees to a solution with the city. 

"So, we have to follow civil service process. If both parties are willing to negotiate it, we can work through that. They (the fire union) want to get to that number, but they want to do it in a way that doesn't break our backs," Roman said. 

Following the meeting, Roman said the city and the union need to start negotiating again and figure out a solution that would implement the award while not having a huge impact on the city’s finances.

She said she’s glad the council had the discussion on Wednesday and finally voted on it.

“I appreciate everybody’s opinion,” Roman said.

In the city's appeal, filed in December, outside counsel Bryan Goldberger called arbitrator Michael Lewandowski's opinion and award "totally irrational," offering several reasons why the city should not be forced to increase the fire department's minimum manning level.

He argued that the city did not violate its contract with Lockport Professional Firefighters Association because the elimination of one ambulance and the elimination of the city fire department's ambulance service in 2014 constituted a change in "apparatus or other relevant circumstance."

In addition, Goldberger argued that the remedy imposed by Lewandowski is "violative of strong public policy" and the city's reason for reducing staffing in 2014 — fiscal stress — should be taken into consideration.

In 2014, Mayor Anne McCaffrey's administration ordered the fire department's ambulance service shut down amid the city's fiscal crisis and cut the department's minimum staffing level from nine to six firefighters per shift. The firefighters' union sued to restore the staffing level to nine per shift and, after an administrative law judge ruled against the city, it was determined that the city and the union had to negotiate the staffing issue — which they did by seeking arbitration.

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