Councilman: Unions could bend plan

One shouldn’t underestimate the power of the police and firefighters’ unions, according to City Councilman Dave Butterbaugh.

City Manager Omar Strohm may feel confident that Altoona’s Act 47 recovery plan will set the expense bar for next year, as Strohm indicated at a budget meeting Wednesday.

But with the city’s three union contracts still unsettled and personnel costs comprising 83 percent of total expenses, Butterbaugh

doesn’t share the confidence.

“We can hope that the contracts end in a way conformable with the Act 47 plan,” he said Friday. “But there’s certainly no guarantee.”

He believes there’s no guarantee, despite revisions last year to Act 47, fixing a problem – from the municipal point of view – that allowed arbitration awards to supersede municipalities’ distress recovery plans.

In 2012, lawmakers revised Act 47 to state explicitly that all arbitration outcomes must conform with recovery plans.

But as a compromise, it allowed those plans to be subject to arbitration.

Still, the arbitrator will need an expert to vouch that his ruling doesn’t violate the expenditure limits of plans or jeopardize the financial stability of municipalities, according to the law.

Moreover, municipalities or their 47 coordinators could make quick appeals to Commonwealth Court, which could only rule for arbitrators if it finds that recovery plan restrictions on employee compensation are “arbitrary, capricious or established in bad faith,” according to the law.

Nevertheless, those new protective provisions have not been challenged legally yet, Butterbaugh said.

“I have a feeling it may go to court,” he stated. “We [might be] the first city to test [the revisions].”

The Fraternal Order of Police and the Pennsylvania Professional Fire Fighters Association are the two most powerful unions in the state, the councilman said.

“They’re tough and smart,” he said. “They’re good at finding a way to get what they want.”

He doesn’t think they’re going to “lay down and accept” the recovery plan restrictions, he said.

Those include a freeze on wages, no movement in “longevity” slots, no alterations to the “step” increases by which police, firefighters and some public works employees advance to become full-fledged line workers and a variety of pension changes.

The presidents of the police and firefighters’ unions

didn’t return calls for comment.

Scott Campanaro, president of the non-uniformed workers union local, part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said that arbitration awards, which his union is not entitled to, would be the only way for workers to break through the restrictions of the recovery plan.

“It’s an opportunity,” he said. “[Although] I don’t think it’s a great opportunity.”

His union is negotiating with the city manager and representatives of the Department of Community and Economic Development and the city’s Act 47 coordinator team in an effort to “get the least punishment out of this as possible,” he said.

But there’s “very limited” flexibility.

The recovery plan is essentially a contract between the state and the city, and anything that’s in “black and white” – like the pay freeze, which is in the form of an order, not a suggestion – is absolute, he said.

“The plan has to work at the end of the day, for everybody’s benefit,” said Rick Schuettler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Municipal League. “I would hope it doesn’t get mired down.”

Still, the unions are formidable, especially if they decide to “lawyer up,” Butterbaugh said.

“I may disagree with them,” he stated. “But I respect them.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.