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Council, firefighters grill Dubow on administration's appeal of arbitration ruling

It's a familiar sight these days.

Firefighters lined the City Council chambers to heckle a Nutter administration policy and cheer on those questioning it.

About three dozen firefighters showed up in their union colors to a Public Safety Committee hearing Tuesday that probed the administration's decision to once again appeal a ruling that would give firefighters retroactive pay raises and other financial awards.

The Council members considered a resolution, introduced by Councilman David Oh, that seeks to pin down a price tag on what enforcing the arbitration ruling would cost the city.

City Finance Director Rob Dubow reiterated the administration's position that the city would have to pay more than $200 million over the next five years, resulting in cuts of about 2 to 5 percent for many city departments.

"The city cannot afford those costs without making painful budget cuts that would damage key services," he said.

Dubow was scoffed at by the firefighters, one of whom held up a sign reading, "How much is the ice rink?" referring to the project at Dilworth Plaza that will cost $50 million -- although much of that will come from federal funds.

Bill Gault, president of the firefighters union, said the award would only cost about $66 million over the four-year life of the stalled contract, from 2009 to 2013.

Mayor Nutter, he said, "continues to thumb his nose at men and women who risk their lives for Philadelphians every day, simply because he didn't get the award he wanted."

After the hearing, Nutter said he and his administration "respect, revere and appreciate the heroic work of Philadelphia firefighters. That is not at issue here."

"We need to have an award package that not only we can afford, but has the kind of reforms we need and have received in other arbitration packages," he said.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz testified that the city can afford the award but is dragging its feet.

"First of all, this award is inevitable," Butkovitz said to applause, noting that it had been upheld twice in arbitration and that the city's most recent appeal was shot down in Common Pleas Court.

"When you say that you don't have money to pay for that, what is it that you do have money for that comes before that?" said Butkovitz, whom some expect will run for mayor in 2015 and is building support among the firefighters.

Councilman Jim Kenney, another possible mayoral candidate, joined in on the fire-o-philia.

"Anyone who's willing to go to work in the morning and not come in at night should be treated with more respect" than the administration treats firefighters with, he said.

Oh said his resolution would lead to Council hiring an independent accountant to tally the award's costs to the city and explain why the two sides have such different calculations.