City resists firefighters arbitration settlements

The city continues to fight the results of the firefighters’ union binding arbitration. — photo courtesy of creative commons

The International Association of Firefighters Local 22, which represents the firefighters and paramedics of the Philadelphia Fire Department, has won two settlements with the city through binding arbitration, but the city hasn’t yet paid on the award, as the city claims the $200 million award would critically damage the city’s budget structure, while the union contends the award wasn’t even half as much as the city claimed, and are due the funds awarded to them.

In the middle of this contract tug-of-war is City Council, with Councilman David Oh introducing in March a bill that would force the city to honor the arbitration court’s decision, while Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr., chair of council’s Appropriations Committee, vowed to get answers from the city regarding the firefighter award. To that end, the committee and the whole body of council has held and continues to hold hearings around the issue.

“The administration testified that Councilman Oh’s bill had financial consequences and that it is not legally valid. Both can’t be true. If the bill is not legally valid, it has no consequences,” Goode said. “The [Mayor Michael] Nutter administration never resolved those contradictory statements. City Council is adamant about resolving this issue and other labor matters. We will continue to assert ourselves.”

Oh’s bill, No. 130185, calls for several arbitration-related movements, including using the FY2013 positive General Fund balance to pay for the “undisputed” $66,000,000 firefighter award while confirming that IAFF22 indeed won two rounds of binding arbitration.

“The most recent City Manager’s Report projects that the General Fund will end Fiscal Year 2013 with a positive fund balance of $114,156,000, an amount more than sufficient to appropriate for the purpose of satisfying the non-disputed amount of the fire fighters’ contract under the latest arbitration award,” read Oh’s bill, in part. “It is financially irresponsible for the [Nutter] Administration to withhold funds that must be paid and not set aside this money while continuing to spend and not to pay the fire fighters from the FY2013 General Fund positive fund balance the non-disputed amount of the contract that has gone through two arbitration proceedings.”

Administration spokesman Mark McDonald sought to clarify the situation, noting a few procedural errors that council either overlooked or hadn’t been made aware of.

“The first thing is, Rebecca Rhynhart, the city’s budget director, said the administration opposes the bill because it would result in negative fund balances – the city’s bottom line – during the proposed fiscal years 2014-2018 five year plan. Second, and this is more fundamental, under the city charter, council is not authorized to specify in any detail how appropriations are to be spent, other than in the lump-sum category,” McDonald said, noting that council can generally direct a certain amount of money to be spent, but cannot specifically say where that money – in this case, to the fire fighters’ settlement – goes. “And possibly, there’s another problem. Under the city’s charter, transfers of budget items may not be during the last four months of any fiscal year, except upon the recommendations of the mayor. Meaning, in the last four months of the fiscal year, which is March-June, council cannot transfer any money without the mayor approving it.”

McDonald did say council could transfer additional sums to the fire department to be used on the personal services side, but those funds couldn’t be applied to the arbitration award.

Nutter has gone on the record a number of times criticizing the award and forecasting the damage such a payout would cause.

“Again, the city is facing an award that burdens tax payers with more than $200 million in expenses, and offers the city little flexibility to manage rising costs. The award is still not consistent with PICA requirements, and we will not agree to an award that could jeopardize the city’s financial position,” Nutter said when the arbitration award was first announced. “This contract continues to ignore the city’s ability to pay for these benefits and perpetuates the same conditions that created the financial challenges the city has weathered over the past few years. It is unfair to taxpayers to continue down the same path.

“While we value the work of our firefighters, we have no choice but to appeal an award that imposes exorbitant costs and no methods to manage the impact of those costs.”

For IAFF 22 officials, the issue isn’t that cut-and-dry; for a service that cannot go on strike, their only recourse is to enter binding arbitration, with both parties making concessions – and living with the consequences. The union is forced to honor any decision handed down via the arbitration, and wants the city to honor it as well.

“We’ve won twice in arbitration and once in court. Next is a contempt of court hearing, and we’re waiting for a date to hear that, and we also filed an unfair labor case, which will be heard in August,” said IAFF 22 President Bill Gault, noting that while the Nutter Administration says the costs of the award is $200 million, when for the union’s purposes that figure is $66,000,000, and that Nutter is standing firm on the thorny issue of healthcare. “We start negotiations at the end of this month for a new contract as this one expires July 1.

“We are feeling it in morale the most,” Gault added. “You can’t put a price on the damage done to the dignity of brave men and women, while this mayor has constantly slapped them.”

 

Contact staff writer Damon C. Williams at (215) 893-5745 or dwilliams@phillytrib.com.

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