City, Firefighters face off in court over arbitration award

The Nutter administration and the city firefighter union faced off in Common Pleas court today over an arbitration award that the union wants implemented and the city says is too costly.

Before Judge Idee C. Fox, the city’s attorney Shannon Farmer argued that the four-year contract – which runs from July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2013 -- would add more than $200 million to the city’s five-year financial plan and that the arbitration panel did not properly consider the city’s ability to pay.

“They’re significant costs,” said Farmer, of the Ballard Spahr law firm, adding that there are no savings in the award to offset the expense.

But the union’s attorney Nan Lassen, of the Williams, Willig and Davidson law firm, said the city is suffering from “sour grapes” and should accept the terms which she said the panel reached after lengthy consideration.

“I keep hearing the voice of our Vice President Joe Biden when he said ‘that’s malarkey,” said Lassen, referring to comments made by Biden in last week’s vice presidential debate. “That is our view.”

This battle has limped along for years. An arbitration award was first issued in late 2010, which the city appealed. In July, an arbitration panel issued another very similar award, which included three years of three percent raises, protection from unpaid furloughs and more funding for health benefits, prompting yet another appeal from the city.

The union argues that this award is very similar to the current police award, which the city chose not to appeal. But Farmer said there were cost-savings in the police contract that included changes to healthcare and the ability to impose unpaid furlough days – though the city has never used that power.

Fox requested additional materials from both sides and is not expected to rule for several more weeks.

In December, bargaining will likely begin on the firefighters’ next contract, whether or not this dispute is resolved.