City Council to Mayor Nutter: Pay your employees

city council budget protest
Rikard Larma/Metro. Municipal employees packed City Council to the rafters last week during Mayor Michael Nutter’s budget address.

The city’s annual budget hearings opened Monday with members of Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration presenting the city’s five-year plan emphasizing investments in public safety and green infrastructure coupled with incentives for businesses.

But the message from City Council members was clear: resolve the long running contract disputes with District Council 33 and 47 and firefighters union Local 22.

“We want this to end,” Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said. “We don’t want to get in the union’s business, but it fell in our court so we have to deal with it.”

The mayor’s budget address last week was derailed by throngs of booing employees who have been working without contracts since 2009, for the first time bringing the fight directly to Council’s doorstep.

“Like everything else, the give and take has to occur and at this point there’s been no give and no take,” deputy mayor Everett Gillison said, calling the union negotiations “fruitless.”

The administration is seeking reforms to municipal employee pensions and health care benefits – which Jones referred to as “the sword of Damocles hanging over the negotiations” – as well as reformed work rules changing the way overtime is calculated.

Furlough face-off

Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. grilled officials on the plan’s provision that all collective bargaining agreements involving city workers allow for furloughs, which amount to unpaid employer-mandated days off.

“The issue is if health care and pension costs are the major financial concerns, why must it be furloughs that’s a sticking point?” he asked Gillison.

Gillison replied furloughs are preferable alternative to layoffs, though the city doesn’t anticipate exercising either option.

Council President Darrell Clarke wasn’t convinced.

“The difference between furloughs and layoffs is if you get laid off in this particular state, you have the ability to collect unemployment,” Clarke said. “But if you’re furloughed, you do not.”

He pointed out furloughs may be easier for the city to engineer than layoffs from an administrative standpoint, but they’re more challenging to the city workers who aren’t receiving paychecks or unemployment benefits during their time off.

“Most people with regards to the union conversation don’t believe that it’s a fair process where the finance director, who works for the mayor, can trigger the furlough process,” Clarke said.

He asked if the administration would instead consider employing a neutral third party “that would acknowledge or concur there was a financial condition that warranted a furlough policy.”

Fire fight

Councilman David Oh expressed concerns a judge’s ruling in Local 22′s case – which is currently tied up in the Court of Common Pleas – could compel the city to pay four years of retroactive raises in one lump sum.

“Then we would be challenged to come up with this money to fulfill a court order if we have not set anything aside,” he said.

“We expect to win, first of all,” budget director Rebecca Rhynhart shot back.”And we don’t have the money to pay them – that’s the basis for the appeal.”

“I don’t see how the idea you might win an appeal down the road alleviates the responsibility of ensuring those funds are somehow accounted for in the budget,” Oh replied.

A question of priorities

Council members clashed with the administration over funding priorities and how to best resolve the city’s debts without penalizing workers or cutting services.

  • Oh questioned the proposed $3 million for a citywide bike share program. “However it is defined, there is a decision that the bike share program would be more fruitful for the city compared to public safety issues,” he said during an exchange with Gillison.
  • Clarke and Jones want to further investigate leasing ad space on municipal buildings and city-owned outdoor space, which proposal Jones noticed was not included in revenue forecasts by the city’s five-year plan. “I can only say [it] should be added to that calculation,” Jones said. “Whether you agree with it or not, it should at least be a factor.”
  • Councilmen Jim Kenney and Bobby Henon want to improve delinquent tax collections. “The Revenue Department can hopefully prioritize collections,” Henon said.”That being something that can capture some of the millions and millions of dollars that are out there that the city is owed because of back taxes – and that’s because of a lack of housing licenses and illegal rental and investment properties.” He also faulted independent 1099 contractors, who are not required to hold professional or business privilege licenses or to carry liability insurance.

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