First Budget Hearing Centers On Union Contracts, AVI

One thing was clear from Council’s first day of budget hearings Monday – many of the members believe the administration’s drive to win the right to furlough non-uniformed workers is an unnecessary impediment to negotiating contracts with the municipal unions.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke noted that the city’s five-year financial plan – the official topic of Monday’s inaugural hearing – doesn’t anticipate the need to furlough workers. He also said the unions prefer lay-offs in times of economic stress because members then can collect unemployment benefits.

“I don’t understand why that continues to be a sticking point,” he said. “One, we don’t need them. Two the preference with the unions is if you want to lay me off, lay me off.”

Mayor Nutter’s chief of staff, Everett Gillison, said furloughs reflect the administration’s belief that it’s better to furlough workers in tough times, saving money without laying people off. He also said the issue of furloughs – the administration is seeking the right to furlough some workers for up to three weeks a year – is hardly the only matter holding up deals with District Councils 47 and 33.

“I don’t think this is the end-all, be-all,” he said. “I think there are other issues.”

Councilman Bobby Henon, the member with perhaps the deepest labor bona fides, twice questioned why Nutter would ask the state Supreme Court for permission to impose a contract on DC 33, the blue collar municipal worker union.

“Why are we taking the sanctity of collective bargaining into the courts?” he asked.

“The reason we’re in the courts is because we don’t have any other options,” Gillison said. “Sometimes you need to be pushed when you get to the end.”

Councilman David Oh also took the administration to task for not budgeting for the cost of a firefighter contract now being challenged in courts. He pointed to $3 million in the capital budget for a bike share program and suggested that Nutter thought the bike program was “more important than public safety.”

Administration officials pointed out that public safety was funded out of the operating budget, not the capital budget, and new fire equipment was one of the city’s biggest new spending items in the plan.

Members also asked a number of questions about money they thought the administration could be collecting or saving. Many of those queries were cast in light of the contracts, the underfunded pension system and the mayor’s property tax reform effort, the Actual Value Initiative (AVI), which is going to cause property taxes to go up substantially in some neighborhoods.

Clarke, who said after union protesters halted the mayor’s budget address earlier this month that he would get involved in contract negotiations, asked about his proposal to sell advertising on city property – an idea for which he believes the administration has shown little enthusiasm.

While questioning Finance Director Rob Dubow, Clarke suggested that selling advertising would make more money than would be saved under the mayor’s plan to reform the pension system. Dubow noted that the pension changes would reap more savings in later years, as more employees entered the new plan.

Last week, Council hosted two days of hearings on tax delinquent property owners. Councilman James F. Kenney on Monday asked about people who cheat the city out of business taxes, saying no one feared the city like the IRS.

“Part and parcel of this whole AVI discussion is that people feel we’re leaving money on the table,” he said. “How do we get to a point where people feel comfortable that every quarter is being shaken out?”

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