Scranton labor contracts include arbitration rulings, settlement

To determine the impact of Mayor Bill Courtright’s revised police contract, city council members and the public have had to untangle a series of legal documents, arbitration decisions and a settlement spanning three mayors.

The puzzle of documents that make up the public safety union contracts include agreements from nearly 20 years ago signed by then-Mayor Jim Connors and several arbitration decisions in battles between former Mayor Chris Doherty and the public safety unions. Some of the arbitration awards, including addenda, are more than 200 pages long.

“You’re mowing through a lot of weeds to get this information. At times, it could be confusing,” Councilman Bill Gaughan said.

Now city leaders debating an agreement reached between Mr. Courtright and the police union to revise and extend its contract through 2021 likely have until Thursday to get the puzzle correct. That is when the agreement could receive its final OK and be adopted.

Council introduced last week a resolution to approve the contract revision by a vote of 3 to 2, with council President Bob McGoff and councilmen Pat Rogan and Joe Wechsler in favor. Mr. Gaughan and councilman Wayne Evans opposed it.

The mayor’s plan initially hit a bump on Jan. 15, when council tabled a resolution approving the revised police contract because council members want more information on costs of concessions made by the mayor, including restoration of retiree healthcare benefits and elimination of a 240-day cap on sick days.

Of most concern, Mr. Courtright intends for this restoration of healthcare benefits to affect just six employees hired after Jan. 1, 1994, but a Times-Tribune analysis showed this city concession could be a future budget buster because it does not state a retirement age or limit it by name to specific officers.

“That’s a huge concern,” Mr. Gaughan said of this concession. “Is that going to hurt us in the future? It’s very ambiguous.”

Prior pacts, decisions and rulings that form the foundation of the public safety union contracts include:

• The police union and fire union contracts start with collective bargaining agreements covering 1996 to 2002 under Mr. Connors. The contracts were signed four years after Scranton was designated as financially distressed by the state in 1992 under Act 47. Mr. Connors, who did not favor the Act 47 designation, butted heads with the city’s Act 47 recovery coordinator,

Pennsylvania Economy League, over its recovery plan. PEL viewed the Connors contracts as outside the scope of the recovery plan and sanctioned the city. The contracts also contain legal language stating past practices that benefit each union carry over.

• Mr. Doherty entered office in 2002, embracing PEL. Police won handily in two arbitration awards, one for 2003-07 and one for 2008-14. Firefighters also won out in two awards, one for 2003-07 and one for 2008-14.

Mr. Doherty vowed to use the full leverage of Act 47 to appeal arbitration awards in court. That led to the epic legal battle between management and fire and police unions, all framed within the context of two key laws — Act 47, the Distressed Municipalities Act of 1987, and Act 111, Pennsylvania’s arbitration law of 1968, that conflicted with each other. Mr. Doherty won some battles, such as a 2009 Commonwealth Court ruling that eliminated retiree healthcare. However, his administration ultimately lost the war on Oct. 19, 2011, when the state Supreme Court ruled that Act 111 is not trumped by Act 47, and thus the Act 47 recovery plan did not supersede arbitration awards given to the unions under Act 111. The unions pegged backpay due to them at around $30 million. In a mid-2012 settlement between Mr. Doherty and the unions, they agreed to forgo around half of the backpay amount and gave the city a year to obtain the money. The 2012 settlement also extended and modified the contracts through 2017.

• Mr. Courtright entered office in 2014, facing monumental problems, including a severely distressed pension system and the arbitration backpay award remaining unpaid and growing. It now stands at around nearly $23 million. Supported during his election campaign by the unions, Mr. Courtright brought in an outside consultant, Henry Amoroso, whose recommendations included seeking concessions from police, fire, DPW and clerical unions. Mr. Courtright decided to negotiate with each union one at a time, starting with police, and then moving on to the fire union.

On Jan. 7, Mr. Courtright announced that he and police signed a memorandum of understanding that involved the union taking a rare move of opening its contract three years before expiration and agreeing to manning/shift concessions estimated to produce a net of $6.8 million in savings and new revenue. That is according to a summary of savings and costs of the revisions provided Jan. 19 to council by city labor counsel Ned Abrahamsen.

However, Mr. Courtright also gave concessions, including restoration of retiree healthcare.

The Courtright concessions also would extend the city’s police union contract from 2018 through 2021, with raises each year. Mr. Courtright said his goals are to gain cost-saving concessions and budget predictability with “below-market” raises, while at the same time keeping labor peace by avoiding costly arbitration battles over negotiating a new contract.

Councilman Pat Rogan said the prior administration’s “war against the unions” ended up being more costly in raises set by an arbitrator for 2008-14 that totaled 44.8 percent, which he said he believes was far higher than otherwise could have been the case with negotiations.

Without a contract extension, Mr. Courtright would be negotiating police/fire contracts in 2017, which would be the final year of his four-year term and a re-election year.

What’s next?

A split city council voted 3-2 last week to introduce a resolution approving the revised police contract. The majority agreed the revised contract is an overall plus. Mr. McGoff and Mr. Wechsler said the revised contract would provide badly needed savings now, and the contract extension through 2012 avoids a likely future arbitration battle after the current 2007 contract expires.

However, the minority expressed concern the city is giving up more than it gains.

“We need to get this thing (revised police contract) right because we’re pinching pennies here” as a financially-distressed city, Mr. Evans said.

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