A Common Pleas Court judge yesterday rejected a request from the city's firefighter union to block the closures on Monday of seven fire companies.
Judge Gary Di Vito ruled that the legal argument made by Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters placed "heavy reliance" on a part of their 2005 contract that was struck down by the state Commonwealth Court in 2007.
Di Vito wrote that he was convinced by the testimony two weeks ago from Deputy Fire Commissioner John Devlin that the elimination of five fire engines and two ladder trucks would still maintain "sufficient coverage of all areas of the city." Di Vito's order goes on to say that an expert brought in from Local 22's national office used a flawed analysis of Fire Department data when studying the closures.
Di Vito noted that the union's expert admitted he didn't have enough information to say if the lives of firefighters or city residents would be at risk if the fire companies were closed.
The expert, Jonathan Moore, testified on Dec. 17 that Local 22 had requested data from the Department on the last two years of fire calls but never received it.
Local 22 has appealed the 2007 ruling on its contract. That case struck language from the contract that had required an independent study be completed before fire companies could be closed. The state Supreme Court had scheduled a hearing on that appeal for March. The union asked that court on Dec. 16 - the same day it sued the city in Common Pleas Court - to also issue an injunction stopping the closures. No ruling has been issued by the Supreme Court.
Mayor Nutter has said the fire company closures are necessary as part of a larger plan to close a gap in the city's five-year financial plan that has grown to more than $1 billion. No fire stations are being closed and no firefighters are being laid off. The closures will save the city $10.4 million per year in overtime costs as firefighters staffing the five engines and two ladder trucks will be reassigned to fill other posts.
Local 22 president Brian McBride yesterday continued to warn that the closures will risk lives in the city. He also criticized the Fire Department's study that led up to the proposed changes.
"The city did an amateur job on that study," McBride said.
City Solicitor Shelley Smith said Di Vito's ruling means that the Supreme Court's March hearing will eventually resolve the issue. Mayor Nutter, she said, is pleased his plans can go forward.
"Obviously we have a very large budget problem that we're trying to address," Smith said. "This was just part of that solution but it's an important part." *