Lawsuit Filed Against Firefighters by City in New York

In an attempt to get Lockport firefighters to stop their bid to fight staff reductions, the city has filed another lawsuit against their union.

June 11--The City of Lockport has filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the firefighter union's bid to reverse reductions in minimum staffing and the ambulance service, in order to save the city from running out of money by August.

The suit, filed Tuesday afternoon in New York State Supreme Court, is a request made by the city for a stay of arbitration. Officials are hoping to stave off an attempt by the Lockport Professional Firefighters Association to stop the cuts instituted by the Fire Board.

No judge or court date has been assigned yet.

In April, the Fire Board voted to cut staffing levels down from nine to seven firefighters per shift and to cut the number of firefighters on an ambulance from three to two. The board also ordered one of the two city ambulances to be taken out of service.

The LPFA was successful in obtaining a restraining order preventing the city from following through with those changes. Two weeks ago, the city and the union appeared before state Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III in Niagara Falls to argue their cases.

Both sides are waiting on Boniello to issue a decision on whether to lift the restraining order sometime in the near future.

But now, the union wants to arbitrate the issue. Which is in line with what the city argued last month, that the restraining order should be lifted since the matter can be settled by arbitration.

Last month, the LPFA's attorney, Andrea Sammarco, said in court that the union contract commits the city to having sufficient staffing to maintain firefighter safety. She said the union has won two state arbitration awards in the past four years that she said show that cuts that endanger safety are not allowed.

"There is a safety issue not only to the public in this case, but to the firefighters," Sammarco said.

Deputy Corporation Counsel David Blackley said the city feels there's nothing in the agreement with the LPFA that stops officials from making those reductions.

"It's the prerogative of the employer," he said. "There's nothing in the contract that prevents it... the city is trying to balance safety with fiscal responsibility and every stop we're met with something."

The city's argument has been it can't afford to keep things at status quo at the LFD. Overtime costs were approaching $1 million for the year, according to an estimate by Fire Chief Thomas J. Passuite presented to city officials.

The LPFA responded by saying the increase in overtime costs was the fault of the city, since it laid off seven firefighters at the start of the year. It reduced the number of firefighters to 37 with four platoons.

Two platoons work each day, one for 14 hours and the other for 10 hours, with a minimum manning requirement of nine. If the platoon is under nine because of sicknesses or vacations, members are called in from other platoons and the call-ins are paid time and a half for the entire shift.

In Tuesday's filing, the city said it would have borrow money with another revenue anticipation note, or RAN. The Common Council approved a $2.7 million RAN last Oct. 2.

"Without the issuance of a RAN, the city's general fund will have no money to pay expenses as they arise after August 2014," the city's lawsuit said.

City Treasurer Michael White backed up the notion that Lockport was in financial dire straits, by saying the 2013 operational deficit for Lockport was over $1.5 million and the fund balance deficit was $2.6 million. The city cannot afford to have nine firefighters on per shift, he said.

"The city is under severe and dire financial crisis. In fact, I predict that the city will run out of funds to pay its expenses in or about August of this year, unless there is a large infusion of cash from an outside source," White said in an affidavit.

Contact reporter Joe Olenick at 439-9222, ext. 6241 or follow him on Twitter @joeolenick.

Copyright 2014 - Lockport Union-Sun & Journal, N.Y.