LOCKPORT – Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III said last week he will rule in about 30 days on whether the six North Tonawanda police dispatchers who were transferred to Niagara County in July are entitled to more seniority-related benefits.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of the six asserts that they are getting a raw deal on salary, shift differentials and retirement health insurance.
The Deputy Sheriffs Association, the union that the six new dispatchers have joined, is arguing against their claim, along with the county and the City of North Tonawanda.
“We have 19 [other] dispatchers that I don’t think that would be fair to,” union President Jeffrey Newman said after a court hearing before Murphy on Monday.
All six dispatchers signed forms accepting the salaries of $20.20 an hour and the job terms included in an agreement between the county and the city that took effect July 1. However, three of the six wrote that they signed “under protest,” with two of them specifying that their protest pertained to a grievance filed against the city by their old union, the Civil Service Employees Association.
W. James Schwan, attorney for the Deputy Sheriffs Association, said that grievance was an effort to prevent the transfer from taking place at all.
North Tonawanda, which shifted its Fire Department dispatching duties to the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office several years ago, sought to do the same with Police Department dispatching. The six civilian dispatchers were transferred to the county, and the city agreed to reimburse the county’s costs for employing them.
The city will pay 75 percent of the county’s cost for the six dispatchers’ salaries and benefits in 2014, 50 percent in 2015 and 25 percent in 2016. In 2017, the county pays the full cost, but the county has been approved for a $400,000 state efficiency grant to help pay its costs.
Despite the city’s reimbursement costs, Mayor Robert G. Ortt has estimated that the transfer of dispatch duties will save city taxpayers $1.7 million over the term of the deal.
The Deputy Sheriffs Association has a six-step pay scale in its contract with the county, meaning it normally takes six years for a new hire to reach top pay, currently $23.15 per hour.
The six North Tonawandans were placed on Step 3, even though they all have between nine and 12 years of experience.
Terry M. Sugrue, attorney for the North Tonawanda six, argued that the arrangement violated state civil service law, because the six were allowed to take their full seniority with them to the county only for purposes of layoff protection and consideration for promotions – not for pay or benefits.
Sugrue said the law requires seniority to be transferred for all purposes in such situations. “The parties can’t simply agree to give the petitioners less than the statute allows,” he told Murphy.
“Each of these individuals signed an agreement accepting these benefits,” Schwan countered.
“These guys didn’t have a choice. ‘Take this job and fight it out, or you’re out of luck.’ And here we are,” Sugrue said.
Chief Thomas C. Beatty said the Sheriff’s Office placed the North Tonawanda six on the same shifts they had been working for the city.
Newman said one of the benefits of seniority comes in “shift bidding.” Each year, the dispatchers get to choose their preferred schedule, but those with the most seniority get to choose first. The North Tonawandans, despite their experience with the city, are on the bottom of the county seniority list for that purpose.
They also are receiving reduced credit toward retirement health insurance and are ineligible for shift differential and longevity payments added to the base salary for more senior dispatchers.
The differential is 50 cents an hour for working the 3-to-11 p.m. shift, and 55 cents an hour for the overnight shift.
The least experienced of the six, nine-year veteran Brenda Higgins, also is missing out on two days of vacation she would have received working for the city, the lawsuit says.
The other five plaintiffs are Lisa DiFrancesco, Kelly Earnst, Michael Janowsky, Michelle Maraschiello and Raymond Yurek.
“These employees are not looking to be placed in a better position than anybody else. They want to protect their statutory rights,” Sugrue said.
“Each of the petitioners entered into a pre-employment agreement. It should be enforced,” said James N. Schmit, attorney for the county.
The city is paying the county the full cost of salaries and benefits for the six this year and in 2013. The six-month tab this year was $236,992.
The North Tonawanda six actually received a 16-cent hourly pay raise for the transfer, according to a chart in the court file. They were earning $20.04 per hour with the city.
“They had no problem grabbing that benefit,” Schwan said.
However, had they stayed in North Tonawanda, their salaries would have risen to $20.24 as of July 1, 4 cents more than their county pay.
But according to the Deputy Sheriffs Association contract, as they move up the steps, their salaries will outstrip those in the city CSEA contract. By 2015, when they are scheduled to reach $23.15 per hour, their North Tonawanda pay would have been $21.17 per hour.
City Attorney Shawn P. Nickerson argued that the city should not be a party to the lawsuit, contending that the case is over how to interpret the Deputy Sheriffs Association contract and noting that the plaintiffs don’t work for North Tonawanda anymore.