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Nutter sets money aside in case firefighters union award stands

The Nutter administration switched gears and has now set aside $31 million to pay for a portion of the firefighters’ arbitration award.

THE NUTTER administration switched gears and has now set aside $31 million to pay for a portion of the firefighters' arbitration award that it is appealing - again.

Despite concerns raised by City Council, the city controller and the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, the city's fiscal watchdog, Nutter's budget proposal had not included the costs of the award if the appeal was unsuccessful.

The issue has been a major sticking point during this year's budget debate in addition to the longstanding contract disputes with the city's blue- and white-collar unions. Some had called the administration's budgeting irresponsible.

The Nutter administration said yesterday that it had changed course to dedicate the money because revenues are projected to be higher than expected, according to the Quarterly City Manager's Report, which was released Wednesday. Mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said that's due mostly to increased revenue from business taxes.

"The decision was made to set aside a portion of these funds as part of what is available for a resolution of the case if required," McDonald said, adding that the city still continues to move forward with its third appeal, which is headed to Commonwealth Court.

The city's firefighters and other municipal unions have been working without a contract since 2009. The Nutter administration has said it can't afford the firefighters' award, which it said would cost more than $200 million over five years. The firefighters union puts the price tag at $60 million.

Council was set to vote on a bill next week sponsored by Councilman David Oh that would have authorized the city to set aside $66 million from the general fund in case the city lost the appeal. McDonald said neither that nor issues raised by PICA about the city's financial plan played a role in the latest turn of events, attributing the change to the "improving economy."

Council and PICA chairman Sam Katz commended the administration for the move. Richard Poulson, attorney for the firefighters' union, said it was the "responsible thing to do. We can agree or disagree as to whether the award should be granted or not, but if the city loses they will have to pay it."

The award that was appealed included retroactive raises, protection from unpaid furloughs and more money for health benefits. The administration did include $38 million in its budget proposal for a future arbitration award for the next contract.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated legal dispute, the firefighters union filed a lawsuit Monday to compel the administration to fill vacancies within the Fire Department, which include six captains and 11 lieutenants.

Common Pleas Judge Dwight Pettigrew ruled in favor of the union Wednesday. The city plans to appeal.