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Binding arbitration change could limit union bargaining power

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A proposal limiting to 2 percent the pay raises firefighter and police unions are able to get in arbitrated contracts with “fiscally distressed” communities is being billed as a way to help struggling communities remain solvent.

The state comptroller’s office has designated communities as fiscally distressed if, over a five-year period, they have reserve funds that are less than 5 percent of their budgets, or their tax rate ranks among the top 25 percent in the state. A proposal in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s executive budget limits to 2 percent the raises these communities can give to their police and firefighter unions if contracts are reached through binding arbitration.

In binding arbitration, an arbitrator listens to both sides and draws the terms of a contract both sides have to accept.

William D. Nelson, Ogdensburg mayor and president of the New York Conference of Mayors, said the proposal will help struggling communities.

Ogdensburg is listed as a fiscally distressed city.

“The arbitrator would have to take into account the fiscal situation of the community that he’s looking to make an award to,” Mr. Nelson said. “It will look at the true financial picture of a municipality. There are a number of communities across the state that are on the verge of bankruptcy.”

He said the proposal is “one more tool to assist towards financial stability.”

Also among the north country municipalities on the list of distressed communities are St. Lawrence, Jefferson and Lewis counties, the city of Watertown and the villages of Potsdam, Canton, Massena, Gouverneur, Dexter, Adams, Carthage, Lowville, Malone and Saranac Lake.

The governor’s proposal has come under attack by the International Association of Firefighters, which in a released statement called Mr. Cuomo’s proposal an “assault on the livelihoods of the firefighters and police” across the state.

But Ogdensburg Firefighters Association President Terry Shaver said the proposal might not have much of an effect.

“We’ve never had to come to binding arbitration,” he said.

Because of that, Mr. Shaver said, he isn’t worried.

“Quite honestly, I don’t have an opinion,” Mr. Shaver said. “It’s not policy yet.”

St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin M. Wells echoed that sentiment.

“The only way they could come into play is if somebody went into binding arbitration,” he said. “I don’t see it having a huge effect here.”

International Association of Firefighters President Harold A. Schaitberger wrote in a letter to Mr. Cuomo the proposal would make the binding arbitration law unworkable.

“Your proposal will negatively impact over 6,000 firefighters in 102 jurisdictions throughout the state,” he wrote. “Our economists believe that, as crafted, your proposal would effectively allow 95 percent of jurisdictions to avoid binding interest arbitration by falling into a ‘fiscally distressed’ category.”

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