In the continuum of contentiousness between the Nutter administration and the members of the Philadelphia’s firefighters and paramedics union, brownouts in particular stick in the union’s craw.
Brownouts are the mayor’s controversial policy of shutting down selected fire companies temporarily on a rotating basis as a cost-cutting measure. But members of Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters don’t think that a few million dollars in savings to the department’s annual overtime expenditures is worth risking the safety of civilians and firefighters. The administration insists that the program doesn’t compromise safety.
Initiated in 2010, brownouts have been so polarizing that union officials were shocked to hear Nutter’s director of public safety testify to a City Council committee on April 29 that the administration hopes to end the program.
“We are exploring the possibility that we may be able to end or severely curtail the use of brownouts,” Michael Resnick told Council’s Committee on Labor and Civil Service in prepared remarks.
Resnick testified regarding a pending bill that would establish new protocols for the administration before it could “temporarily or permanently reduce or eliminate engine or ladder companies.” The proposed ordinance calls for public notice and hearings, along with comprehensive studies of the potential impact of fire company reductions on the city’s finances and on public safety. The bill also would allow for binding arbitration to settle a union challenge to fire company reductions.
The Nutter administration opposes the bill because, according to Resnick, it seeks to “relocate decision-making authority on closures and reductions from the fire department’s highly trained leaders to labor arbitrators with no expertise in worker or public safety.”
Local 22 President Joe Schulle thinks that City Hall has already taken the decision-making away from the experts in the fire department, citing Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers’ own testimony during Council’s Fiscal 2014 budget hearings last spring.
During those hearings, Councilman David Oh asked Ayers if he believed that brownouts should continue. Ayers replied, “If I could have the brownouts discontinued, I would discontinue them. Right now … they’re contributing to the budget and the safety of the citizens has not been diminished.”
Further, Ayers said that it would be the Nutter administration’s decision to provide funding for the elimination of brownouts.
“The fire department has the highly skilled professionals. But [the Nutter administration is] not allowing them to make the decision. What’s happening now is the administration is making the decision,” Schulle told the Northeast Times last week.
Ayers, in his 2014 budget testimony, added that the brownout program saves the city $3.8 million per year in firefighter overtime expenditures. But those savings don’t go back into fire department operations. Rather, they benefit the city’s general fund.
In Fiscal 2014, the fire department’s operating budget is about $219 million, while the city’s is about $3.75 billion. Even with the brownouts program in place, the fire department over-spent about $7.2 million on overtime in Fiscal 2013, beyond the budgeted amount for that year. Fiscal 2014 overtime spending totals are not yet available.
Nutter has proposed a $4.49 billion city budget for Fiscal 2015, which includes a one-time payment of $700 million into the city’s pension fund with proceeds garnered from the sale of the Philadelphia Gas Works. The mayor’s proposed fire department spending is $207 million for Fiscal 2015.
Schulle said that the administration has never approached the union to discuss ending brownouts, but he’s glad to hear it’s being considered. After the April 29 Council committee hearing, Resnick reportedly told KYW Newsradio that a decision on brownouts likely would not come until this fall. Ayers reportedly told the radio station that next year would be a more likely scenario, considering the department’s ongoing efforts to overhaul its delivery of emergency medical services. Local 22 officials will be watching closely.
“Of course, we’re going to push it in the coming months if nothing changes,” Schulle said.
Meanwhile, the administration and union remain in arbitration over a new labor contract for Local 22 firefighters and paramedics. Union members have been working without a contract technically since July 1, the day after their last four-year deal (which also was achieved through arbitration) expired. However, the administration actually withheld raises and other terms prescribed by that contract until September, when city attorneys decided to drop their legal challenges to the contract. The city paid union raises and benefits increases retroactively.
According to Schulle, a three-member arbitration panel has concluded its formal hearings and is now meeting privately with attorneys for both sides. Sessions are scheduled through August. At the conclusion of meetings, the panel will have 30 days to issue a written award. According to Schulle, the panel may decide to meet beyond August or conclude the sessions before then.
Among the three arbitrators, the administration has selected one and the union one. The third panel member is considered the “neutral” arbitrator. A majority vote of the panel is required to approve an award. ••