Firefighters union fights Mayor Peduto on continuing state oversight of Pittsburgh

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The head of the Pittsburgh firefighters union is imploring Gov. Tom Corbett to release the city from Act 47, a state program for financially distressed municipalities that could limit the union's collective bargaining power as it heads into negotiations this year.

Joe King, president of I.A.F.F. Local No. 1, wrote the letter in response to an ongoing campaign by Mayor Bill Peduto to keep the city in the program.

Last week, as his first official correspondence as mayor, Mr. Peduto wrote a letter asking the governor to keep Pittsburgh under the constraints of Act 47, calling the city's financial situation "precarious" because of burgeoning legacy costs from an anemically funded pension and because the city had yet to meet many of the benchmarks established by a financial recovery plan.

Mr. Peduto will be back in Harrisburg next week to make another pitch to state officials.

In the scathing missive, Mr. King accused Mr. Peduto of wanting to keep the city in the program to retaliate against the firefighters for not endorsing him in the May primary. He pointed out that the city's own Act 47 coordinators recommended that it be released from the program in 2012.

"I take absolutely no pleasure in stating that I believe the obvious reason that Mayor Peduto is requesting that you ignore the Act 47 Coordinators' recommendation to rescind the distressed status is because the police and the firefighters did not support his candidacy as Mayor," he wrote. "The Firefighters believe that there are better ways to resolve such political disputes ..."

But Kevin Acklin, chief of staff for Mr. Peduto, said the mayor was one of the first proponents of the Act 47 plan 10 years ago and that his support for Act 47 predates his mayoral aspirations.

The exchange could set the tone for potentially hostile negotiations between the city and the firefighters union, whose contract expires at the end of this year.

Mr. Peduto said he does not plan to sit at the negotiating table and may instead hire outside lawyers to handle the negotiations.

Mr. King accused the mayor of wanting to keep the city in the program merely to hamstring the union and to limit the rights guaranteed to firefighters under Act 111, which outlines the collective bargaining process.

Both the firefighters union and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1 will begin contract negotiations by the middle of this year.

"Respectfully, the only reason that Mayor Peduto wishes to keep the City of Pittsburgh under the stain of 'Distressed Status' is to wrongfully deny the City's first responders (firefighters and police) a meaningful right to engage in the collective bargaining process that is guaranteed by Act 111 and the Pennsylvania Constitution," he wrote in the letter. "Mayor Peduto should not be permitted to abuse the Act 47 process for his stated interest to eviscerate Act 111."

Since the city entered Act 47 a decade ago, the number of firefighters has shrunk by about a third. Post-retirement health care was also cut for firefighters hired after 2005.

But Mr. Peduto said Thursday that the limits Act 47 place on the collective bargaining process are critical for the city to remain on the right financial track.

If the city and the union can't agree on pieces of the contract, the contract goes to binding arbitration, whereby a panel of arbitrators settles the dispute. If the city is under Act 47, the panel has to take its financial condition into account before making its award.

"I don't dismiss what Joe King is trying to do, but it's more in his interest to serve the 600 firefighters than trying to serve the 310,000 people who live in the city of Pittsburgh," the mayor said.

"We will make sure that our firefighters are protected and that they have a good salary and that they have a good retirement but at the same time we can't jeopardize the future of the city just for that one contract."

Moriah Balingit:, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published January 16, 2014 9:32 AM

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