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Rejection of proposed job merger draws union criticism from NT mayor

   A city union has rejected a proposal to combine superintendent jobs for two utilities in North Tonawanda and Lockport into one position, a move North Tonawanda Mayor Robert G. Ortt says could have saved the city about $60,000.

   The proposal would have combined the utilities director job in Lockport with the water and wastewater superintendent post in North Tonawanda.

   City officials have been negotiating an intermunicipal agreement with the City of Lockport, and needed a sign-off from the local unit of the Office and Professional Employees International Union, which represents the city's department heads.

   The new combined job would not be included in the North Tonawanda department head union initially, but would become one in 18 months under a verbal agreement with the union, said Ortt, who announced the results of the union vote during his 2011 budget presentation in Common Council Chambers on Tuesday evening.

   Ortt called the union's move "a turf battle" and "a power play."

   "So this is a union, a public employees union, protecting their own at the cost to the rest of the taxpayers," Ortt said. "It's outrageous."

Listen to a portion of Ortt's reaction here:

   The proposal called for the cities to share a director for its water and sewer departments, both of which already are combined under one superintendent in each city.

   While at first the new combined post would not be a position in the North Tonawanda union, an agreement had been reached for the job to become a union post in North Tonawanda 18 months after the job was combined.

   The union needed to sign off on the deal for contractual reasons.

   The result of Tuesday's union vote was 5-4. One department head was absent from the meeting and, therefore, did not cast a vote.

   Acting Wastewater Superintendent and Public Works Superintendent Gary J. Franklin said the majority of the union members believes combining the two jobs, while maintaining current staffing levels, creates a position with more responsibility than one person can handle. Such a deal is not in North Tonawanda's "best interests," he said.

   "It is not a turf situation. It is not we want control of the situation," Franklin said today. "It's not that at all. The fact of the matter is we're being asked to endorse something that we don't think is going to work the way it's put together right now."

   Franklin, the president of the local department head unit, and City Engineer Dale W. Marshall, who is the acting water superintendent for the city, have taken on those additional roles since former Superintendent Paul J. Drof left to take the top job with the Niagara Falls Water Board in April. Neither has received an increase in compensation for the extra duties.

   Earlier this year, the union endorsed a proposal to combine the utilities superintendent jobs in Niagara Falls and North Tonawanda, though that was rejected by North Tonawanda city officials.

   Ortt said he believes the union's taken two different positions on a proposed job merger, supporting one where they retain a union member.

   Franklin countered, saying the proposed merger with the Falls would put a person familiar with the North Tonawanda system -- Drof -- in charge. The proposed agreement with Lockport would result in having Paula Sattelberg, that city's current utilities director, in the post, and she is unfamiliar with the North Tonawanda system, said Franklin, who called Sattelberg "well qualified" for the combined job.

   Under the proposed job merger, the new director would split time between the two cities, Franklin said.

   City officials spent a significant amount of time working with union leaders on the deal, and the city had spent "weeks and weeks waiting" for the union's decision, Ortt said.

Here's more of Ortt's reaction:

   The mayor also vowed to hold city department heads accountable for the result of their votes.

   Ortt was visibly frustrated at the news of the union's decision, which he said he learned from Franklin before Tuesday's Council workshop.

   "This is exactly what's wrong with this city, with the county, with the state, with the country I would even say," Ortt said. "I'm furious."

   The cities of Lockport, North Tonawanda and Niagara Falls have undertaken a study on whether they can merge water and sewer systems. One of the alternatives proposed as a result of the study, Ortt said, would include Lockport having its drinking water treated and distributed from North Tonawanda facilities, along with the elimination of the Lockport plant and work force.

Here's the full audio of the discussion among city leaders (7 min 35 sec):

--Aaron Besecker


government | North Tonawanda
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