NIAGARA FALLS – The City of Lockport may soon eliminate its ambulance service, unless a judge rules it can’t make such cuts without clearing them with the firefighters’ union.
State Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III reserved decision today on whether the city violated the union contract last month by attempting to cut the minimum staffing levels on each shift from nine firefighters to seven, and by ordering that one of the two ambulances and one of the three fire trucks be taken out of service.
The Common Council and Fire Board were to meet jointly May 13 to discuss doing away with the Fire Department’s ambulance service and replacing it with a private company. The meeting was canceled after the Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association obtained a temporary restraining order from Boniello barring the reductions the city put into effect May 1.
Asked today if the ambulance service will be eliminated if the city wins the lawsuit, Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said, “We’re going to discuss that.”
But an affidavit signed by Fire Chief Thomas J. Passuite and submitted to Boniello indicates that the decision to do away with the ambulances is as good as made.
“Operating the ambulance service compromises the department’s ability to adequately staff our fire apparatus,” the chief wrote. “Having been part of this recent city discussion, I fully anticipate that the decision to eliminate the ambulance service is forthcoming.”
The May 1 cutbacks were made because of burgeoning overtime costs, which the union blames on the city’s layoff of seven firefighters at the beginning of this year.
Passuite said in his affidavit that overtime for the rest of the year could cost $440,000 above the $500,000 already in the city budget, unless Boniello allows the cutbacks.
The union’s attorney, Andrea L. Sammarco, argued today before Boniello that the union contract commits the city to having sufficient staffing to maintain firefighter safety.
“There is a safety issue not only to the public in this case, but to the firefighters,” Sammarco said in arguing for an injunction against the implementation of the May 1 cuts, which were ordered by the Fire Board April 22.
Sammarco 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.
Bryan J. Goldberger, the $225-an-hour Albany lawyer the city chose to argue its case, said there’s nothing in the collective bargaining agreement that requires any particular level of staffing or equipment.
Goldberger said it is up to the city “to determine the level of service we’re going to provide … The contract does not require us to have ambulances at all.”
He said the union’s argument means the city never could adjust staffing levels.
The lawyers agreed that to win an injunction, the union must show that the cuts do “irreparable harm.”
Goldberger said the harm must be to the union. He said, “The city gets to determine public safety, and the (required showing of) irreparable harm is to the petitioners, not the public.”
“That is completely false,” Sammarco said. “We have submitted concrete examples to show that a reduction in equipment resulted in death.”
She was referring to the 2012 death of the mother of Alderman John Lombardi III, who went into anaphylactic shock at home on a morning when both city ambulances were on other assignments.
The duty officer called South Lockport Fire Company for mutual aid, but when it failed to respond, he switched the call to Wrights Corners Fire Company. By the time it got a crew to the Lombardi home, it was too late. The city agreed two weeks ago to pay a cash settlement to Lombardi’s family.
“There is nothing more important and irreparable than life,” Sammarco said.
Goldberger called the union’s argument “speculative. The city could have had two ambulances or 20 ambulances. The case cited by the petitioner could have happened no matter how many ambulances there were.”
The city hasn’t sought to block arbitration over the cutbacks. Goldberger said a state arbitrator could order everything back to status quo, as an arbitrator in 2009 did by undoing a cut in minimum manning from to 10 to nine firefighters per shift.
However, the union and the city then agreed to leave staffing at nine, as dispatching duties were shifted to the Police Department. That agreement says the city can adjust staffing levels “to account for changes in population, technology, apparatus or other relevant circumstances.”