Familiar Threads Woven in Harrisburg Recovery Plan

Over three years ago, in February 2010, we asked if the debt related to a trash incinerator was pervasive enough to cause a municipal bankruptcy filing-colloquially, that the City of Harrisburg’s finances could possibly end “up in ashes”. 


After the City was placed into Act 47 status, saw the General Assembly make changes to the statute as it applied to Harrisburg, and operating under the direction of an appointed receiver, a plan, somewhat pretentiously titled “Harrisburg Strong”, has come together for placing the City on the path to a solid financial future.


Readers of our reports, especially as they pertain to Pittsburgh, will notice some familiar themes and one very different situation; namely, the presence of the aforementioned dollar devouring trash incinerator. That facility is slated to be sold-to another public authority-and some of the proceeds will go to satisfy creditors (but only partially satisfy since negotiations have produced settlements for less than owed) and reimburse Dauphin County.  That won’t pay all the bills, so a 40 year lease of parking garages, lots, and street spaces to a public-private partnership is expected to yield enough money to pay off parking debt, the rest of the incinerator debt, for the City itself, and for funds related to economic development, infrastructure development, and a trust fund for retiree health care obligations.


That last point is a good starting place to assess how the City and its employees are partnering up at this critical juncture.  As the February 2012 recovery plan pointed out, Harrisburg is similar to many municipal governments in that it is a very labor intensive undertaking and the lion’s share of costs are attributable to employee compensation.  Three bargaining units represent the majority of the workforce covering police, fire, and non-uniformed staff (461 employees total including non-represented staff) and all negotiated early-bird contract extensions that limited the City’s and the receiver’s ability to make changes.  Compared to other cities of the third class in Pennsylvania (Reading, York, Allentown, etc.) the plan found that Harrisburg public safety minimum salary ran about $10,000 higher. The recovery plan projected workforce costs to rise from $45 million to $52 million from 2012 through 2016. 


As described in the “Harrisburg Strong” plan, two of the three bargaining units (police and non-uniformed) have agreed to concessions during the lives of the existing contracts to move the City toward its goal of getting $4 to $4.8 million in savings.  There are tradeoffs for both the City and the bargaining units: for police, what were to be 3 percent annual wage increases through 2016 are now 0 rising to 1 percent in the final year.  Payments toward health care coverage for current employees will be made with variations based on the number of people covered on an employee’s plan with the percentage of income paid for insurance rising throughout the duration of the agreement.  Current employees who retire after the ratification of contract changes are treated the same as active employees and, as is almost always the case when it comes to legacy cost changes, new hires will not be eligible for post-retirement health care benefits. The police contract opens up the possibility that certain positions might be offered to civilian employees and that booking could be transferred to Dauphin County. Most of those same terms will apply to the adjustment for non-uniformed employees.  


So what sweeteners do the employees get in return for these concessions? For one thing they are asking for elimination of the residency requirement. This issue has been bandied about in Pittsburgh over the summer and will no doubt intensify closer to Election Day. In Harrisburg, the proposed amendments for both police and non-uniformed contracts contain language stating “…the residency requirement contained in prior collective bargaining agreements between the parties is eliminated, and employees, regardless of hiring date, shall not be required to establish or maintain a residence within the corporate limits of Harrisburg”.  Could that be a deal breaker for City officials who must pass some of the necessary ordinances to make “Harrisburg Strong”? 


Overall approval for the plan falls to the Commonwealth Court, which plans to review the proposal in mid-September. 

Southside Streets as Urinals

A resident of the Southside is facing assault charges for shooting a man with BB gun who refused to heed the resident’s demands that he stop urinating on his property. This after the man became fed up with the constant abuse of his residence by revelers.

So, now he must go to go court and hope for the best. Ironically, the man shot was charged with public urination but his charge was dismissed.

The history of the unsanitary, filthy behavior is one of longstanding and repeated pleas to the City for help from the residents have largely gone unheeded. If something is not done, it is just a matter of time before someone gets badly hurt.

If the City cannot offer adequate police patrols, it should require the restaurants, bars and saloons to build an adequate supply of public convenience facilities and keep them clean. Obviously, their own facilities are not enough to keep folks from wandering into alleyways or storefronts to relieve themselves. Anyone caught by police publicly urinating would be assigned toilet cleanup duty for two weekends. A second offense, three months and a third offense, 30 days in jail.

The City should ask the County for a share of the drink tax revenue collected by Southside establishments to help with patrols and perhaps construct toilet facilities to prevent drunks and miscreants from having to relieve themselves wherever they please. There was a proposal for an improvement district and an additional tax, but that plan did not move past City Council.

In short, this problem is not a hard one to fix as City Council apparently believes it is. When one of your neighborhoods is being treated like a sewer by residents and non-residents alike, the Council should get angry and act accordingly.

Residency Proposal Now a Law

In a recent Brief we wrote about legislation that passed both houses of the General Assembly that, if signed by the Governor, would take language requiring Pittsburgh Police officers to be residents of the City out of state law. The Governor signed that legislation last week, and is now known as Act 195 of 2012.

The law does not mean present officers are free to move outside of the City or that those yet to be hired won’t have to move into the City as a condition of employment. It means that the residency issue will be decided by collective bargaining and not because it is embedded in state codes.

What that looks like could take on any variety of forms. As we pointed out in the Brief, Philadelphia requires new officers to reside in the City but those with five years experience or more can reside elsewhere. A quick look at the websites for two of the state’s larger cities, Erie and Lancaster, shows that officers have to live within a 15 mile radius or 20 mile radius, respectively without reference to years of service to the department.

Will Pittsburgh Police Head for the Exits?

Legislation has passed both houses of the General Assembly that would permit Pittsburgh Police officers to bargain over the issue of a City residency requirement as a condition of employment. The bill amends a 1951 act that said "a person applying for appointment shall not be required to be a resident of the city at the time of application…The person shall, however, be required to become a bona fide resident of the city at the time of employment and city residency must be maintained for the entire period of employment".

The new language, if it becomes law, would state "A city of the second class may require a police officer to become a bona fide resident of the city as a condition of employment". This opens the door to the residency requirement becoming a subject of collective bargaining. According to published reports Pittsburgh-the only city of the second class in Pennsylvania-is the only municipality to have a residency requirement for police codified in state law. That’s not to say that cities and towns don’t require police to live within their borders, just that it is bargained in negotiations.

It is a subject that has come up time and again, with strong opinions on both sides of the issue. Some feel that having police required to live in the municipality that employs them keeps them vested in the community while others feel police should be free to choose where they live and, if they have school age children, where they choose to send their children for educational purposes.

We wrote a report on residency requirements in 2001 which noted that as soon as the state erased residency requirements for teachers in Pittsburgh, the police union asked for the same. In recent years it was an issue in the 2007 mayoral election and the state attempted to change the requirement in 2010.

If the change becomes law, and the police win a removal of the requirement through contract negotiations, will other bargaining units follow suit? As of the most recent Civil Service Guide publication for the city (2010) the language for police appears as it does above, prior to the new amended language, and firefighters have to have been a City resident for at least one year prior to application for the job (established by state law) and non-uniformed employees have to establish City residency (governed by City ordinance).

What Has Happened to PA’s Largest Police Forces?

This question gets posed as new crime statistics for Pittsburgh are released showing a decrease in violent (Part 1) crimes. Data from the Pennsylvania State Police’s Uniform Crime Report shows crime stats, but also contains data on the fifteen largest local police agencies. Omitting county forces, the five largest municipal forces (measured by full time police officers) in 2010 were Philadelphia (6,734), Pittsburgh (887), Allentown (197), Harrisburg (179), and Erie (173). That’s a total of 8,170 officers in those five cities.

A decade earlier those five cities combined had 8,580 full timers, about 400 more. Obviously, populations of those cities has changed a bit, so it is more accurate to take a measurement of full time officers per 1,000 people in those two time frames.

All of those rates were down with the exception of Harrisburg, which was up slightly from 3.5 per 1,000 to 3.6 per 1,000. Probably not very noticeable as the city reported having eight more officers in 2010 than 2000. Pittsburgh, even with layoffs prior to Act 47 status and changes to post-retiree health care, which affected police, still carries roughly the same officer per 1,000 people with 3.1 in 2000 and 2.9 in 2010.

Who Pays for Police Protection?

Nearly half of Pennsylvania’s municipalities rely on the State Police to provide their police services. Some very large municipalities, such as Hempfield in Westmoreland County, are in that group. The question is should the Commonwealth change this situation? For the half of municipalities that pay for their own police forces or pay other municipal forces to provide the services, there is obvious double and unfair taxation. One, to pay for their own police and two, to subsidize through their state taxes the State Police services used by the municipalities without their own police forces.

Clearly, something should be done to rectify this situation. As municipalities find it ever more difficult to raise enough money to fund their core functions including police and their pensions, more and more will choose to eliminate their police departments and utilize state provided police services. If the state does not increase its funding of police services, the State Police will become spread ever thinner and their effectiveness undoubtedly diminished. On the other hand, if the Commonwealth allocates more dollars to fund police to provide coverage to the rising number of municipalities who are dropping their own departments, then that will mean increasing the effective tax burdens on the taxpayers in municipalities still providing their own police, thereby exacerbating the unfair double taxation.

There are only two fair ways to deal with this problem. First, the Commonwealth could impose a fee on the municipalities who have opted to go with State police protection. The charge could be in two parts. One charge would be an upfront per capita fee to pay for routine patrols and the second a per incident fee each time the State Police are called to respond to a crime or other situation requiring police presence.

Second, the Legislature could pass a bill eliminating all municipal police forces and require all policing to be done by State provided personnel and resources. That would vastly enlarge the State police force but it would eliminate the unfairness faced by municipalities who pay for their own police and also subsidize State provided service to the municipalities who refuse to pay for a police department. Clearly, this solution is not an appealing one but as the burden of policing falls ever more heavily on the State and the inequity of the situation worsens, it might be the only answer.

It would be far better for the Legislature in the very near future to come up with a reasonable fee schedule as proposed above so as to reduce the double burden faced by the municipalities who provide their own police. It should not be beyond the wit of man to calculate a fair fee schedule based on the costs being incurred by State Police in their role as local police. Those who adamantly oppose paying anything for State Police protection are basically arguing for a free ride.

Who’ll Man the Police Desk?

Under a proposed state law, retired police officers could return to work on a part-time basis (800 hours a year) without jeopardizing their pension benefits. Such a bill might be welcome news to a cash-strapped city like Pittsburgh, which is always looking for ways to effectively deploy its 900-member police force.

Retired officers could perform various functions: "monitor surveillance cameras, man the front desks at police stations, staff the property room, perform confidential clerical work, take reports over the telephone, transport mail from station to station, work missing-person cases, run background checks on police recruits, teach courses at the police academy, operate the citizens police academy, help with traffic control and serve as community liaisons", according to one of the City’s commanders. Do that, and more police could be on the streets.

"To me, it seems like a can’t-lose proposition all the way around" according to the commander.

The only question: weren’t civilians supposed to be performing these tasks? The Act 47 team put forth data that showed Pittsburgh was very high on its ratio of sworn-to-civilian personnel (13.7) and said that "this data indicates there are opportunities for civilianization in Pittsburgh’s Police Bureau-placing civilian employees so the latter can be reassigned to patrol and more traditional police activities". Presumably the team meant non-police personnel, even retired, when they pushed for civilians.

Or perhaps since the state law was silent on permitting retirees to work part-time the Act 47 team never considered the option. Maybe there is room for both, but it is a safe bet that the wage for a civilian is going to be less than what would be for a retired police officer. The point of getting civilians into those positions was to save money, especially on overtime and premium pay.

And the City should have to show some major commitment to following through on the original Act 47 plan for civilianization which, as of the 2009 revision, was plodding along very slowly. Where the expectation existed for 38 civilian opportunities only 2 officers had actually been redeployed.

Act 111 in Need of Overhaul

In regards to a recent spate of incidents involving City police and fire personnel ranging from allegations ofroad rage, drunk driving, and assault the Mayor wants the departments to "clean up their act" while mentioning that there is another act that definitely needs to be cleaned up-the Police and Fire Collective Bargaining Act, better known as Act 111 of 1968.

"We’ve disciplined officers. We’ve disciplined firefighters. We’ve fired them, terminated them. Only to find that they’ve won their jobs back in arbitration" was what the Mayor said today.

Act 111 has been pointed to as a primary reason as to why municipal budgets have been stretched to the breaking point. Any impasse in a collective bargaining session is submitted to a panel of arbitrators who do not have to consider the financial ability of the municipality in making their decision. Only by entering into Act 47-which says that any contract negotiated after distressed status is declared-can a municipality thwart the possibility of an arbitration award that is too rich.

Now we see what Act 111 can do for management powers as well. The City needs to reduce its workforce so that it can begin to deal with its legacy costs, and Act 111 is doing the City no favors. So one of the action items that needs to be on the agenda of the coalition that is headed to Harrisburg seeking new revenues for the City is reform of the statute.

Still No Word on Civilians in the Police Department

As details of the proposed Fraternal Order of Police contract with the City of Pittsburgh begin to leak out, there is still no indication that the Act 47 team’s recommendation (codified as PB01) in the amended recovery plan that the City pursue a strategy of civilianization. In plain terms, civilianization is "placing civilian employees in positions held by sworn employees so the latter can be reassigned to patrol and more traditional police activities".

The recovery plan found a ratio of 13.7 sworn employees for every one civilian employee in the Pittsburgh police department. That was higher than Akron (10.5), Cleveland (4.5), Rochester (4.2), and Newark (3.1). The team characterized Pittsburgh’s ratio as "unusually high" and the International Association of Chiefs of Police backed the idea in a 2005 report.

There has been a snail’s pace at acting on the recommendation: in the 2004 Act 47 plan the team targeted 38 positions for civilianization, and only two officers have been redeployed thus far.

Obviously one has to wonder why, if civilians could perform certain functions at a lower price tag (on salary and fringe benefits) that the idea has not received more attention.