Inquirer Editorial: Stop kicking can down road

Posted: August 07, 2012

Mayor Nutter's decision to appeal a second arbitration ruling that gives city firefighters a raise tests his apparent strategy of kicking the can down the road on labor agreements with most of the municipal workforce.

Given that Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters won the city's earlier appeal over the wage-and-benefits contract crafted by an arbitration panel, the mayor's approach to reaching a settlement with the firefighters, as well as negotiating contracts for the city's 16,000 non-uniformed workers, is wearying.

However, while the dispute heads back to Common Pleas Court - where it could languish for months, as happened last time - things could be brought to a head much sooner if the city's state-run financial oversight panel weighs in.

The Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority faces a tough decision in whether to approve the city's latest five-year spending plan, which provides for no wage increases beyond those ordered for police officers by a 2009 arbitration panel.

In the view of PICA Chairman Sam Katz, the firefighter arbitration award - along with other factors - means that the "zero percentage . . . is no longer a reasonable assumption," when it comes to a pay raise. It's certainly beginning to look that way.

If PICA were to reject the city's fiscal plan - which would be a first in its two-decade tenure as the city's fiscal watchdog - it would force the mayor to at least spell out publicly how he could pay for firefighter raises of 3 percent annually for three years.

While that sounds like a formality, it could have the beneficial spin-off of forcing the city to grapple with long-term challenges sooner rather than later. As part of that process, the Nutter administration might take a closer look at how further restructuring and streamlining could help City Hall deliver critical municipal services more cost-effectively.

In holding down Fire Department costs, for instance, the mayor has closed several fire stations and imposed rolling brownouts - cutbacks the firefighters' union contends threaten public safety, although without any compelling proof. But what if closer study could identify even more efficiencies?

In confronting the arbitration award's impact, that sort of review should be mandatory.

The mayor contends that his refusal to buckle under to any union wage and benefit demands that he views as too expensive has spared taxpayers that cost as the city continues to struggle past the effects of the nation's worst economic recession.

True enough. But that conservative approach hasn't kept Nutter and City Council from hitting the taxpayers he's so concerned about with three real-estate hikes in recent years - tax hikes that understandably leave firefighters asking why they're still left out.

When the city failed to appeal the police union's pact, which represented a bigger share of city spending than the arbitrated raises for 2,100 firefighters and paramedics, it also missed an important opportunity. Looking at that and other indicators, the arbitration panel that ordered the firefighters' raise concluded the city could afford the terms "without adversely affecting levels of service."

All in all, the city's labor situation has only gotten worse during the Nutter years. Standing on the sidelines as the firefighters wage their dispute are 16,000 municipal workers, who have also been without a contract for several years. These disputes must be resolved, or Nutter will leave a legacy of having kicked the can once too often.

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