Firefighters’ Pay Hike Cost City Less Than Legal Fees In Arbitration Process

WILKES-BARRE, PA — From the city’s standpoint, the wage increase recently awarded to firefighters via arbitration doesn’t put it in a bind — even though its legal fees for the process wound up costing more than the pay hike itself.

If the city simply agreed to the demands of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 104, the overall price tag could have been more, said city Administrator Ted Wampole.

“It would have cost us a lot more than $100,000” in legal fees, Wampole said Thursday.

The union was asking for a 5 percent pay hike, Wampole noted.

That was part of the negotiation, said Mike Bilski, president of Local 104.

“They were asking for zero. I figured if I asked for five, I’d get three,” Bilski said.

It turns out he was right. The payout for the unionized firefighters is estimated at $85,000 over 18 months of the two-year contract covered in the arbitration award issued Nov. 28. The city, on the other hand, has racked up $99,365 in legal expenses as of mid-October and additional fees are expected.

The fees were obtained through a Right to Know request by the Times Leader. From June 15, 2016, through Oct. 12 of this year, the city paid $84,765.91 to Ballard Spahr LLP of Philadelphia and $14,600 to consultant Vijay Kapoor of Asheville, N.C. Corresponding costs for the union were not available, Bilski said.

“I believe it was worth it,” Wampole said of the expense to the city.

Negotiations were short-lived before the union asked for arbitration, he noted

“They were very limited discussions,” he recalled.

The administration of Mayor Tony George tried to strike a balance between what the union was asking for and what was fair to the taxpayers, considering the city was struggling to balance its budget, according to Wampole.

Unions representing City Hall and Department of Public Works employees agreed to one-year contract extensions for 2017 with 3 percent pay increases that were already budgeted. The firefighters also were in line for the pay increase in this year’s budget. But beyond that into next year, the mayor attempted to freeze wages for all but the police union that’s contractually guaranteed 3 percent raises through 2019.

Talks have been ongoing for City Hall and DPW employees for new contracts. The city is considering getting out of the garbage collection business and on Monday will open bids submitted from private haulers interested in providing the service.

‘Sign of good agreement’

Neither side in the firefighters contract got everything it wanted, and for Wampole, that was “the sign of a good agreement.”

The union wanted a four-year deal, but the award was for two. The city didn’t want to give a 3 percent wage hike over the length of the contract and it didn’t have to. The award directed the city to pay the higher wage starting halfway through this year on July 1 and then bump it up again next year on the same date. Meanwhile, the union will have to pay 10 percent of its health insurance premium at the start of the new year, a 2 percent increase from this year. Union members also will have off the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday, switching it for the Friday after Thanksgiving.

From The Times Leader