Municipal Conflict?

As noted in today’s Brief the recent Supreme Court decision that says an arbitration settlement is quite different from an arbitration award and what that means for Act 47 recovery plans was an 8-1 decision. What were some of the arguments raised in the dissenting opinion? There were several, but much of it boiled down to this: granting an exception to arbitration awards under Act 47 would basically place police and fire personnel (who have binding arbitration under Act 111) in a class separate from other non-uniformed personnel in an Act 47 community.

For instances, the opinion noted "Act 47 addresses circumstances of financial distress. I am not convinced the General Assembly intended to charge elected officials with these difficult tasks, while simultaneously permitting certain discrete public employee unions to opt-out of terms with which they do not agree…the [majority opinion] allows arbitrators to decide whether public employees should comply with the priorities and expenditure limits set by the distressed municipality plan".

Additionally, "it is also counterintuitive that the General Assembly would exempt certain stakeholders…Act 47 clearly signals the intent to involve all stakeholders in seeking to insure the financial well being of a municipality…[allowing for police and fire awards to be granted regardless of the dictates of the recovery plan] would increase the financial burden on other municipal stakeholders".

Consider that in Pittsburgh there are nine collective bargaining units, two cover police and fire, the remaining seven everything from white- and blue-collar workers, garbage collectors, paramedics, etc. The Supreme Court decision basically states that the collective bargaining agreements, if negotiated between the City and the unions, would not be able to deviate from the plan but if a police or fire contract went to arbitration and the board made an award that violated the plan then that would stand. True, police and fire have had binding arbitration for over forty years but things are a bit different with fiscal distress covering a municipality.

The Power of Act 111

Uniontown, with a population of 11,541, down from 12,421 in 2000, has witnessed firsthand the power exercised by arbitrators under Act 111 of 1968, the act that outlines collective bargaining for police and fire employees in the Commonwealth.

Experiencing financial difficulties for some time-the City was considering Act 47 status two years ago-there were layoffs in the fire department and the decision was made to eliminate the department when the contract expired at the end of 2010.

But after a lawsuit activated the arbitration process under 111 the department will not go, the employees that were laid off will be recalled and all 13 members of the department are scheduled to receive 3.5% annual raises in a new four year contract that is binding upon the municipality.

Where are the opponents of unfunded mandates when you need them?

Consider that the state’s arbitration law does not take into account whether or not the municipality can afford the settlement, what income levels in the affected community are, and don’t include mediation or fact-finding as part of the process.

Thanks to a $633k Federal grant-free money for sure-Uniontown can pay the costs. But what happens when that grant runs out? If this mandate and the loss of Federal money mean bad things once again for the City then they can always revisit the Act 47 process to see if there is a coordinator willing to lend some expertise. Or the state could take a serious look at the statute (something that has not been done since the late 1970s) and think about criteria related to selection and awards.