Pittsburgh, Police Union Spar Over Wages In Appellate Court

PITTSBURGH, PA – Lawyers for the City of Pittsburgh and its police union sparred Wednesday before the Commonwealth Court over what the union says are minimal and arbitrary raises offered in bad faith by the city.

The major issue, according to the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, concerns the size of the wage increases over the course of the term of a four-year contract that was part of an arbitration award.

The union and city previously tried to negotiate a contract for officers. When they couldn’t agree, they went to binding arbitration. The union, unhappy with the July arbitration ruling, filed appeals in Common Pleas and Commonwealth courts.

At a February meeting to go over contract terms, Mayor Bill Peduto walked out after a union representative referred to the city’s bike lanes and asked the mayor if he wanted to “pay for concrete” or “human beings.”

Wednesday’s hearing in the Allegheny County Courthouse’s Gold Room, attended by about six dozen city police officers, was not nearly so contentious. Union attorney Richard Poulson told a panel of seven judges that the contract approved by an arbitration panel provided for no raise in the first year, and then increases of 1, 2 and 2 percent in each of the following years.

Pittsburgh’s budget and finances are under state oversight because of the city’s designation as a financially distressed municipality under state Act 47. As a result, a recovery plan dictates how the city allocates its funding for various purposes, including raises in contracts for civil servants.

Mr. Poulson told the court, “The city is doing fabulously well. Finances have improved dramatically since 2004.”

There is new development, increased revenue and an improved credit rating, he said.

Yet, increases in wages are slight — and not at all competitive with Allegheny County’s suburban police departments — despite language in the 2014 plan, he said, that requires the city to pay competitive compensation.

“The compensation of Pittsburgh police officers has degraded consistently since 2004,” Mr. Poulson said. “The living standards of Pittsburgh police officers have degraded consistently.

“The lag just keeps growing.”

The police union is asking for the Commonwealth Court to vacate the arbitration award and send the dispute back to arbitration with a new panel.

But Gretchen Love, who represented the city at the appellate argument, said she does not believe the Commonwealth Court even has jurisdiction over the issue raised by the union.

She said that the arbitration panel, which heard 10 days of testimony, gets to decide if there is a plan deviation, and it did not find one. Therefore, the issue cannot be challenged at Commonwealth Court.

Judge Joseph M. Cosgrove interjected: “What if the board is wrong?”

He suggested that it makes more sense for the Commonwealth Court to deal with the question expeditiously, than waiting for the case to play out in Common Pleas Court, especially when dealing with “compensation for people who put their lives at risk.”

The recovery plan, Ms. Love said, includes lists of other communities and their wages, and that the compensation plan offered to the police falls in line with what is competitive.

“This is a distressed community,” Ms. Love said. “The city can’t afford its legacy costs.”

After the hearing, city Solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge said Pittsburgh cannot afford the increased wages requested by the police bureau.

“The panel agreed with us, and we had the evidence to support it.”

FOP president Robert Swartzwelder, who attended the argument, said the wage gap is causing new and experienced officers to leave the department.

Mr. Swartzwelder said the problem is with the city administration, which he believes has no respect for officers.

“The mayor doesn’t value his employees. He doesn’t care if they leave,” Mr. Swartzwelder said. “He doesn’t care how much they are paid.

“It’s disheartening. The morale is in the tubes.”

Kevin Acklin, Mr. Peduto’s chief of staff, said the administration invites and would welcome an “open and transparent dialogue with the FOP, like we do with every other union representing workers in the city.”

“Mayor Peduto values and respects all our police officers, and wants nothing more than to create a safe and productive work environment for our officers and their families.”

From The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette