Pushback from police union on barracks blowup

By James Hufnagel, The Niagara Falls Reporter

According to Manuel Vilar, president of the Police Benevolent Association of New York State, the Long Island-based union that represents State Parks Police officers, construction of new barracks on the edge of the scenic Niagara Gorge should recommence at that location without delay.

Notwithstanding the fact that the local community is enormously appreciative of the brave men and women of the New York State Parks police, and their selfless dedication to keeping not only tourists but local residents safe, sometimes risking their lives to do so, we are wondering why exactly a union would be taking a position on what is essentially a land use and planning issue.

Formerly part of New York State Law Enforcement Officers Union AFSCME, AFL-CIO, the PBA of NYS revolted and broke away from the parent union over its failure to achieve a contract with the Cuomo administration, which it subsequently obtained. Highlights of the contract for the new offshoot union (which represents University, DEC, Forest Ranger and State Parks police) include zero percent wage increases for 2011-2013 and a 2% increase in 2014, a mandated “Deficit Reduction Leave” of five days this fiscal year and four days next fiscal year, health insurance premium share increases of 6% for both individual and families, a review of all leave taken by officers, including annual, personal, sick, workers compensation, and the manner of such use, and workforce reductions due to management decisions to close or restructure facilities. Doesn’t sound like such a great deal, does it?

Besides the security of finally having a contract in place, it appears the only plum won for the members in the agreement was a measly retention bonus of $1000, $775 paid out after three years and another paltry $225 after four. Maybe the PBA of NYS should focus more on sharpening its negotiating skills rather than attempting to influence local land use policies on the extreme opposite end of New York State. Just saying.

In a terse, single-page press release dated July 10, Vilar stated that “This section (referring to the unspoiled area at the top of the Niagara Gorge that formerly featured 52 mature hardwood trees which were felled last month) is overgrown and ill-maintained with no future development plans. The new station at this location would not block gorge or waterfront access, would help improve response times, enhance the property; and increase police visibility to assist park visitors.”

Of course, a new sprawling police complex would most certainly block gorge and waterfront access. In addition, the city proposed a parcel just a few hundred feet away on the city side of the Robert Moses Parkway, which would fulfill all the requirements enumerated by Vilar, a compromise thus far ignored by the State Parks.

In the press release, President Vilar references the “concerns”, as he puts it, of the Niagara Falls Tourism Advisory Board in their unanimous opposition to yet more obtrusive State Parks infrastructure surrounding the river, falls and gorge. He adds, “In subsequent weeks, other state and local officials have joined efforts to consider alternatives to the plan.”

Actually, it was more a matter of hours and days, not weeks, before State Senator George Maziarz, Assemblyman John Ceretto, Mayor Paul Dyster, Congressman Brian Higgins (who, by way of enlightening Mr. Vilar, is not a state or local official but is, in fact, a federal official) and the Niagara Falls City Council all voiced their strong opposition to the gorge rim construction.

Listed as media contact on the press release issued by Vilar and the PBA of NYS is an individual by the name of Jim Smith. Smith works at Corning Place Communications, a public relations firm based in Albany, NY, the state’s capital.

So what we have, is a Long Island-based union president and an Albany-based PR man dispensing advice to us on how best to manage our waterfront.

In the “About Us” section of the Corning Place web site, under “Our Team”, Mr. Smith’s “bio” lists the following information: “Jim’s work with the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York (IOGA of NY) has advanced the two key themes of credibility and opportunity for the association’s efforts to bring enhanced natural gas development (“fracking”) to New York State. While opponents have sought to inflame public perception over the processes of hydraulic fracturing, Jim’s focus has been a key factor in ensuring that New Yorkers remain open minded about the future of natural gas development in Upstate regions such as the Southern Tier.”

In an attempt to augment the revenues it receives from its monopoly on parking, dining and souvenir sales, maybe what State Parks has in mind is to drill for oil and gas drilling in the Niagara Falls State Park and Niagara Gorge. After all, most of it is “overgrown and ill-maintained” just like the police barracks site was.

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