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UB Spectrum Article on Massage Benefits for County Employees

Pinpointing the problem

Workers’ massage benefits are a frivolous use of taxpayer money

Erie County employees are sitting in the lap of luxury, and if you’re a taxpayer, they have you to thank.

A recent audit found taxpayers paid nearly $1.4 million over four years so Erie County workers could receive massage and acupuncture treatment. The plan gives employees 12 massages and six acupuncture sessions per year, and all they have to give in return is the minimum co-pay.

Buffalo should be experiencing a bit of déjà vu. Residents may have already forgotten last year, when the city ended up in the national spotlight after it was revealed union employees in the Buffalo Public Schools and their family members were racking up major costs with their cosmetic surgery coverage. Last fiscal year, that little perk cost taxpayers $5.2 million, and most employees receiving the coverage did not even take advantage of it.

It’s really not about where the money is coming from; it’s about what the money is not going into.

As Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw stated, “every penny counts in the county budget.” The county began the year with an estimated $34 million deficit, and it is expected to have to borrow $110 million this year just to pay its bills. $1.4 million is a lot of money for a county with such great debt and for a city struggling to reinvent and thrive.

When some of Buffalo’s most important institutions are faltering and gasping for air, maybe we should be spending taxpayer money on something other than shiatsu and Botox. Nobody is questioning the legitimacy of massage and acupuncture – they are, after all, perfectly acceptable alternative methods of medicine. But they are alternative methods and, for many, considered a luxury.

Further action requires union negotiation, and the Triborough Amendment of the Taylor Law is the cause for this. Under the amendment, the county is not able to alter the terms of any union contract until after a new contract is ratified. Because of this, massage and acupuncture cannot be removed from the contracts until the unions agree on it.

The CSEA Correction Officers unit has already agreed on the removal of treatments for all county corrections workers hired at the beginning of this year, and other county unions should, at the very least, follow suit.

What taxpayers should be paying for is what the city and county needs as a whole, and what they need is so much more than what they’re getting. The county needs to worry about its necessities first, such as supporting city cultural centers and employing more patrol officers, before dealing with excessive benefits. For that to happen, negotiation with Erie County unions should be first priority.

Source: The Spectrum
Published: Tuesday, February 5, 2013
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