Firefighters Union Pushes To End Pittsburgh’s State Oversight

PITTSBURGH, PA &#8211 As Mayor Luke Ravenstahl pushes to get the city released from state financial oversight, he has the assistance of a firefighters’ union that’s been lobbying state officials and city council.

After about eight years of oversight, union president Joe King said, city officials and organized labor know what they have to do to continue on a path to financial stability.

“We get the message,” Mr. King said.

He likened oversight to “handcuffs,” complained about the millions of state dollars spent on oversight boards and said overseers duplicate the work of the mayor and council.

“We’ve got to take our house back. This is our house,” said Mr. King, whose politically powerful union began lobbying state lawmakers months ago and in the past week or so began calling on council members.

Mr. King said he wants the city to petition the state secretary of community and economic development to release the city from oversight, and he wants elected officials to present a united front in support of the request.

Under oversight, Mr. King said, the fire bureau’s budget has been slashed and ranks of firefighters have fallen. Oversight also places limits on the collective-bargaining process.

Mr. Ravenstahl, who faces re-election next year, has said that the city has made enough financial progress to go its own way but hasn’t publicly proposed a timetable for doing so.

“I can tell you the mayor has been having discussions with state leaders on that issue,” his spokeswoman, Joanna Doven, said.

Council backpedaled on a previous push to end oversight.

In 2006, it gave preliminary approval to legislation, supported by Mr. King and other unions, that would have forced the Department of Community and Economic Development to hold a public hearing and make a decision about continuing oversight. However, council killed the proposal a week later.

The city has two sets of overseers, the Act 47 team and the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority. The state spent about $10.4 million on the groups from 2004 through 2011, according to city figures.

“When presented with the facts of Pittsburgh’s true financial picture, and the expense of oversight, reasonable persons would come up to the same reasonable conclusion” as the mayor and Mr. King, Ms. Doven said. “Oversight is unnecessary and too expensive.”

City finance director Scott Kunka said the secretary of community and economic development can rescind the city’s designation as financially distressed and end the work of the Act 47 team. He said the process for dismantling the authority, which was created under separate state legislation, wasn’t clear.

“I’m very interested” in seeking an end to oversight, said Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, chairman of the body’s public safety committee, who spoke with an official of the firefighters union a week ago. “I have been for a long time.”

Councilman Ricky Burgess, finance chairman, said he supports an end to oversight. Councilman Patrick Dowd and Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak said they have not taken a position.

In an annual report provided to city officials in October, the Act 47 team said the city had made significant progress in righting its finances but listed as “incomplete” or “in progress” more than 100 cost-control and revenue-generating projects. The ICA offered a similar report last week, saying the city’s challenges included long-term pension fund solvency and an unfunded retiree health care liability of $488.6 million.

Mr. Ravenstahl’s office says balanced budgets, bond rating upgrades and significant debt reduction in recent years all point to the city’s progress. However, Controller Michael Lamb, a potential mayoral challenger, said the city shouldn’t request an end to oversight until it provides for long-term solvency of the pension fund, which was 58.6 percent funded on March 31.

“We haven’t earned it yet,” he said.

From The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.