"The city has made substantial gains each step of the way," said Executive Director Dottie Johnson. "The $24 million gap loomed large when the control board was established. There is a positive sense of progress."
But the chorus of praise for the city's newly approved financial plan sounded like out-of-tune music to a number of the observers in the auditorium. Among the observers who found the plan to be disturbing was the Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association. They expressed concerns that this plan compromised the safety of residents in a city, in which the majority of the housing stock is old and made of wood. According to Frank M. Lucca, vice president of the Buffalo Professional Firefighters, "We believe that they (the BFSA) did a disservice to the city by directing it to draconian cuts." He said that the control board, the mayor, the commissioner of the fire department and the common council were throwing their hands up in the air and denying any responsibility for the cuts to the fire department.
"I want to know who is responsible when we lose firefighters, when we can't do the job for the city of protecting lives and property. When we fail in that regard, who will take responsibility?" Lucca asked.
Lucca pointed out that the state approved $20 million for the City of Buffalo to re-engineer its fire and police departments and for other city purposes. This, the mayor insists is a goal of city administration. According to Masiello, speaking at a press conference after the October 21 BFSA meeting, city services must be re-engineered. "I am mindful and cognizant of the importance of services."
The $8.2 million allotted to the police department was used for "upgrades and raises to move their re-engineering forward," Lucca explained. But the city stopped negotiations with the Buffalo Professional Firefighters when the control board was set in place in July. As a result, the $8.2 million allotted to the fire department for re-engineering was not used.
Now, Lucca charges, the city wants to put that money into the general fund to use at its discretion. He added that the "legislation has been changed so that the city can use this money to meet its payroll." He said that the firefighters' union has gone to court over the dispensation of the money that was originally designated to this money. Because the control board was sitting in on the court proceedings concerning the disputed $8.2 million, Lucca said that he had questions about President Thomas Baker's assertions that the BFSA would not get involved in the actual running of the City of Buffalo. "This goes beyond purview," he said.
The budget approved by the BFSA calls for the reduction of 113 firefighters, either by attrition or by layoff. This would result in fire companies being closed all over the city, according to the union.
Both Masiello and Common Council President James Pitts said that making draconian cuts was painful. "The actions recommended to the control board were very difficult. They created anxiety in city government," Masiello said. Pitts said that eliminating the filled positions from the city's budget caused the Common Council "tremendous anguish." The actions included cutting approximately 150 city jobs by the end of the fiscal year for a savings of $2.9 million. Many of these positions are currently filled. In addition to firefighters, city positions to be eliminated from the budget include civilian report technicians in the police department, as well as other civil service employees. Additionally, Lucca questioned the motives of County Executive Joel Giambra, a control board member. He pointed out that, in the process of privatizing Erie County Medical Center, Giambra went to Albany to lobby for retirement incentives and the use of attrition to avoid layoffs at the hospital. "Yet he sits on control board that will lay off firefighters in May." Not advocating for the city workers in the same way that he advocated for county employees makes Giambra look hypocritical, Lucca said.
The fire union is in favor of "downsizing by attrition." Lucca said that the control board is authorized to borrow up to $175 million. "They haven't borrowed themselves out of trouble. We believe that they want to see blood in the water. We believe that they want to see people hit the streets because they don't believe the strength of our opposition." And, sure enough, people did hit the streets. On November 3, the firefighters union held a rally downtown that attracted firefighters from Albany, Binghamton, Rochester, and Syracuse. Among their signs were "Buffalo Firefighters Still Make Housecalls," and "Giambra Betrays Buffalo." Union president Joseph Foley said, "It's been said that firefighters put their lives on the line every day, and yet, they are the first in the line for budget cuts and the last in line for recognition."
He added, "We're literally talking about life and death here. So today, we're putting Baker, Masiello, Giambra, (Robert) Wilmers, and the rest of the gang on notice that we'll not be ignored, and that we, our members and their families, are not going away. We'll do everything in our power to get a seat at your table."
And, at the October 21 meeting, Baker talked about public input. "Now that the city's four-year plan has been approved, the BFSA can begin phase two of its work," Baker said. "We want to build the knowledge base to make the city as efficient as possible for as low of a cost as possible. The work is just begun. It cannot be done in weeks or months." Goals for the BFSA include sponsorship of public forums, holding a search for a chief financial officer for the school district, a review of the city's infrastructure, and an evaluation of the city's work force. The BFSA also is required to approve any city contracts that are worth $50,000 or more. "We now have an opportunity to build a knowledge base to help the city and its covered entities do things more efficiently," Baker said.
And Foley commented, "But maybe, Mr. Baker and the rest of the control board will surprise us in the near future. At least, I hope so." by Alice E. Gerard
Appearances can be deceptive. The October 21 meeting of the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority, when the City of Buffalo's four-year financial plan was approved unanimously, seemed anti-climactic, almost placid. The BFSA's executive summary called the plan, which includes an approved declaration of need from the Buffalo Common Council, complete and balanced. That declaration of need gives the BFSA the authority to borrow $7.81 million to close the city's budgetary gap for the 2003-2004 fiscal year.