Erie County union faces long fight for $600
Control board returns payout to Legislature
Updated: 04/12/08 9:36 AM

The $600 payments awarded to 1,200 members of Erie County’s blue-collar union are in limbo, perhaps until a court sorts everything out.

The state-appointed control board Friday kicked the matter back to the Legislature and gave County Executive Chris Collins a chance to bottle up the payments he strongly opposes.

The blue-collar union apparently might have to go to court to argue that its rights under the state’s Taylor Law trump the procedures of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority.

“We would have to take steps to say that someone is in violation of the Taylor Law,” said John Orlando, president of Local 1095, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

In March, the Legislature had agreed to give $600 to each AFSCME worker who was on the payroll at the end of 2005, to settle an impasse from that year. The onetime payment would cost the government about $800,000.

Collins argued that the payout is unaffordable and will lead AFSCME and other unions to use the Legislature as an escape valve in bargaining.

Under the Taylor Law, Collins had no right to veto the Legislature’s action. The county executive’s office already had its say, when Joel A. Giambra, Collins’ predecessor, negotiated with the union and later rejected a fact-finder’s report.

But the control board, which reviews expenditures of $50,000 or more, could reject the payments, as Collins has urged it to do.

In its first public discussion of the matter, the control board Friday said it cannot yet act on the Legislature’s decision.

The control board accepts or rejects decisions that bind the county to spend money. But in its March statement, the Legislature had said only that it deems a $600 payment “appropriate.”

Craig Bucki of the firm Phillips Lytle, a control board lawyer, explained the dilemma.

“It is our opinion that this resolution determining that a payment would be ‘appropriate’ does not present a proposed ‘binding’ obligation,” he said, “and, therefore, the proposed payout is not ripe for this authority’s review.”

The Legislature probably will comply with the control board directive to pass a more forceful statement. Legislators had voted, 10-5, in March to approve the payments, with several Democrats arguing that the union had waited long enough.

The union frequently donates to Democratic campaign causes, but in recent years it also has given up premium pay for working weekends in the parks and agreed to single operators on snowplows on certain routes and to modified work schedules so the county clerk’s office could vary its hours.

Legislator Thomas A. Loughran, an Amherst Democrat and one of the union’s advocates in the Legislature, had wanted to give AFSCME at least a 1 percent raise. Loughran listened to the control board’s decision Friday.

“I think it’s just a procedural problem, and I think the Legislature can get around that,” he said. “But there’s a second part of this.”

At Bucki’s urging, the control board also decided that once the Legislature takes binding action, the matter must go to the county executive. Collins then would decide whether to return the matter to the control board because contracts affecting general operations, Bucki explained, must come from the county executive.

But must the county executive forward the AFSCME package to the control board?

Back in March, Collins said he would do all he could to block the payments. Can Collins just sit on the matter?

Bucki had no answer to that. Later, Collins indicated what he will do — or not do.

“The county executive has been consistently opposed to the Legislature’s $800,000 AFSCME settlement as irresponsible public policy,” said Grant Loomis, a spokesman. “The county executive is under no charter obligation to forward a resolution from the Legislature, especially when there are no funds available to pay this settlement.”

Orlando said the control board should not be able to give the county executive a second chance to block the AFSCME settlement when the Taylor Law does not provide it.

The county’s control board, unlike Buffalo’s, had stayed clear of policy decisions on union matters. By kicking this decision back to the Legislature, the state appointees said they weren’t commenting on how they view the payments to AFSCME; they were just following their rules.