Unions to start talks with city

Altoona and its three labor unions will start negotiations today – for the first time under the constraints of the city’s Act 47 recovery plan – to replace contracts that expire at the end of the year.

The negotiations are critical on the expense-control side of the Act 47 ledger. Personnel costs comprise 81 percent of the city’s $27 million budget.

“We will need to do things that are difficult and uncomfortable,” said City Councilman Dave Butterbaugh at the City Council meeting Wednesday.

The distress recovery plan – which the city’s Act 47 coordinator and the state Department of Community and Economic Development can enforce – calls for a wage and benefit freeze, with a variety of more specific cuts and restrictions.

“It’s not going to be a pleasant experience,” said Scott Campanaro, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents nonuniformed workers.

A wage freeze is a “de facto pay cut” because it doesn’t make up for inflation and the greater cost to workers of benefits year-to-year, Campanaro said.

Campanaro’s misgivings about entering negotiations are mild, compared to those of Bryson Peterman, president of the Pennsylvania Professional Fire Fighters local.

“The whole point of Act 47 is to destroy the working person’s rights, wages [and] benefits,” Peterman said. “[And] to make us out to be villains.”

The plan sets cost limits for each bargaining unit and employee group.

In addition to the wage and benefit freeze, the plan calls for limiting “step” increases, freezing longevity pay and eligibility, reducing holidays, personal days, vacation and sick leave, limiting payments for unused sick leave, limiting the city’s annual increase for health insurance to 5 percent, increasing employee contributions to health insurance, requiring workers to contribute at least 10 percent of premium costs, reducing payments to those who opt out of health insurance and eliminating post-retirement health insurance for future employees.

It also calls for exploring “the viability of prospectively replacing” defined benefit pension plans with defined contribution plans.

If that’s not possible, it calls for a study to prospectively eliminate automatic increases in benefits for the police and fire pensions and reducing the surviving-spouse pension benefit by half.

“God forbid one of my guys makes the ultimate sacrifice,” Peterman said. “[The city] will say to the wife, ‘we’re cutting your check by half.'”

The plan is unjust, because it is punishing workers for mismanagement in the form of contracts city officials signed “of their own free will,” Peterman said.

The restrictions and cuts will make city jobs less desirable and will tend to bring in “less desirable people,” which will make it worse for residents, he said.

Susan Friedman, an attorney for Stevens & Lee, the city’s Act 47 coordinator firm, will sit in on the negotiations but won’t take part in the actual across-the-table talks, according to City Manager Joe Weakland, who said today’s meetings are mainly to “set the stage.”

“We need to do our best to get through it,” Butterbaugh said.

“We will do what we can,” Campanaro said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.