Editorial: Arbitrary Arbitration Award for Firefighters

WORDS DERIVING from the Latin root "arbitrari" aren't always good for us: Arbitrage. Arbitrary.

And now add "Arbitration."

On Friday, an arbitration panel awarded city firefighters a four-year contract award that will give them 3 percent annual raises for the next three years with no changes in health care, no furloughs, and some changes to the pension plan for new hires. The contract could cost the city an additional $146 million over the next five years, including nearly $80 million in health-care costs.

Mayor Nutter says he will appeal the decision. We support that appeal. It's hard to see this decision as anything but arbitrary.

Since the fiscal crisis hit, ordinary citizens have been asked to make sacrifices in the form of budget cuts, increased taxes and higher fees. Not so the firefighters, who get pay increases without any benefit cuts for current employees. That might be fine during good economic times, but not as the city continues to recover from the recession.

Another arbitrary part of the process is that although state law requires the arbitration panel to factor in the city's ability to pay for the contract, that just means the panel assesses the city's ability to pay for that one contract. Other factors- such as the outstanding contracts for the city's two non-uniformed unions- were not considered. That seems unfair, especially to city workers now working without a contract. Why should firefighters be getting raises instead of garbage collectors? It seems worth debating, but the arbitration panel takes that decision away from elected officials -and ultimately the public.

Another example: The arbitration award says firefighters will still be required to live within the city limits. But the recent Police Department contract gave officers the right to live anywhere in Pennsylvania. Why should there be different rules for uniformed employees? Something as important as the residency requirement for city workers shouldn't be decided by an obscure panel that is accountable to no one.

And that brings us to our biggest beef of all: Who is this arbitration panel? We know the panelists' names, but not their stake in the city. Do they even live in the city where their decisions will have such impact? As a bare minimum, shouldn't there be a law requiring this? Decisions of this import and potential impact on the whole city shouldn't be made from behind an opaque curtain.

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