Opening shots fired in budget hearings

On the first day of hearings on next year’s budget, City Council made clear what it wants to focus on this spring: property taxes and labor disputes - two topics that have caused headaches for Mayor Nutter’s administration in recent weeks. 

In a lightning round of questioning nominally tied to the five-year fiscal plan, top administration officials fielded inquiries over why they are demanding possible furloughs from blue-collar workers, why more money isn’t being reserved for the firefighters, why the city is turning to workers to solve the pension crisis and other questions on labor.

Union negotiations are typically the domain of the administration, but Council members are angling to get involved following the municipal unions’ protest of Nutter’s budget address two weeks ago that forced the mayor to abandon his speech.

“I’m not quite sure where this body stands or what kind of standing we have with contract negotiations, but as you can tell, we’re going to be involved using this process and asking questions,” said Councilman Bobby Henon, the former political director of the powerful electricians’ Local 98.

Council President Darrell Clarke said during an intermission Monday that he had never heard so many questions from Council members about union contracts.

Everett Gillison, Nutter’s chief of staff, told Council members that the administration is working to resolve contract disputes as soon as possible. Citing legal concerns, he declined to answer questions about the specifics of ongoing negotiations with the three city unions that have been working without contracts since 2009. 

Gillison said it remains "a time of continuing limited resources," He and Finance Director Rob Dubow emphasized that rising personnel costs like health care and pensions take up a bigger portion of the city budget every year and are a barrier to making investments with discretionary spending. 

Council members also asked about the city's tax-collection efforts and the Actual Value Initiative, the new property-tax system set to begin next year.

They will dig deeper into that subject tomorrow in their hearing with the Office of Property Assessment, which recently completed its reassessment of every taxable property in the city to begin implementing the Actual Value Initiative.