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May 7, 2003

Legislators work to keep 300 jobs here

From: Syracuse Post Standard, NY - May 7, 2003

Contract would specify location for company seeking state's call center business.

May 07, 2003
By Erik Kriss
Albany bureau

A little behind-the-scenes work by two local state lawmakers will ensure that hundreds of jobs at a call center for the hearing- and speech-impaired will remain in Syracuse, if the new state budget is upheld.

Sprint Communications employs about 300 people at 620 Erie Blvd. W. to run the New York Relay Service and has a contract to continue the operation through June 2004, when other companies will get the chance to bid on the contract.

Whoever wins next year's bid will have to locate the state-wide telecommunications relay service center "within the municipality of Syracuse," according to the budget lawmakers approved last week. The contract would be renewable for up to five years.

Gov. George Pataki, who has threatened to veto the spending lawmakers added to his no-growth, $90.8 billion budget proposal, must approve the provision. But since the relay-center deal doesn't involve any money, it has a decent chance of avoiding the governor's veto pen.

"We're still reviewing it," Pataki Budget Division spokesman Andrew Rush said this week.

Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, authored the provision. He said a staffer of his came up with the idea, and he wrote to Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, who agreed to insert the language into the budget bill.

"I'm going to do everything I can to maintain some of the positions we've gotten in Syracuse," he said.

DeFrancisco enlisted the help of Assemblyman William Magnarelli, D-Syracuse. "I don't care if it's Sprint or someone else; we want to keep that center and the jobs," Magnarelli said.

Magnarelli said DeFrancisco faxed him the language the state senator wanted in the bill. He then discussed it in a meeting with Syracuse-native Dean Fuleihan, secretary of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee and the house's chief budget negotiator, and J. Michael Boxley, chief counsel to the speaker.

When the budget passed, Magnarelli's staff checked the bill and found that the language had been included.

CSD, a not-for-profit which has run the center in partnership with Sprint since 1997 when the center was moved from Albany, also wants to see the facility remain in Syracuse.

"To take it away would affect tremendously on the Syracuse employment count," said Jamila Williams, human resources manager for CSD, formerly Communications Services for the Deaf.

"That's a lot of people without work," she said. "It's been a good experience in Syracuse. We have a lot of good employees, and many have been here since the center opened."

Sprint agreed.

"It's a great workforce we have in Syracuse," said Mike Ligas, vice president of Sprint Relay.

Most employees mediate phone conversations by typing words that appear on teletypewriters used by deaf callers and by reading typed messages to hearing callers. Ligas declined to say what employees are paid.

State budget officials were unable to say Monday if it's unusual to mandate the location of state facilities into law. Magnarelli said his research found similar provisions have been passed in other states.

© 2003 The Post-Standard.