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Labor Attorney Richard Poulson Quoted on Protecting Act 111 for Police Officers and Firefighters

June 12, 2014

Legislators hold hearing at Ware Center

By Tim Stuhldreher

State Sen. John Eichelberger and Pennsylvania police union president Les Neri exchanged sharp words Thursday over what Eichelberger characterized as union intransigence over arbitration reform.

“There’s no willingness to sit down and go through any of these things. None,” Eichelberger complained.

Neri insisted he’s always been open to discussions, but said, “I don’t see a need to change a provision, a law … that works.”

Neri was one of more than a dozen witnesses at a joint hearing of the House and Senate local government committees, held at the Ware Center in downtown Lancaster.

A dozen legislators attended, among them Lancaster County state Sen. Lloyd Smucker and state Rep. Mindy Fee.

The hearing concerned Act 111, the law that has governed arbitration proceedings between municipalities and public safety unions for more than four decades.

Municipal leaders say Act 111 favors unions and leads to unaffordably generous contract awards.

Police and firefighter unions, which do not have the right to strike, say the process generally functions as intended.

Unions claim to acknowledge some of the criticisms of the law, but when push comes to shove, “You’re not willing to change any part,” Eichelberger said.

“Sometimes people get it right the first time,” Neri said, referring to those who crafted the law in 1968.

Eichelberger, a Republican whose Altoona-area district includes all or part of five counties, is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 1111, which would reform Act 111.

The proposed reforms — also framed in a companion House bill, No. 1845 — would:

  • Require the cost of arbitration to be borne equally by both sides.

  • Require arbitration hearings to be public.

  • Change how a third, neutral aribrator is selected. (The municipality and union each get to choose one arbitrator; municipalities say the current process for picking the third favors the union.)

  • Bar post-retirement health care and pensions from being included in collective bargaining.

  • Require arbitrators to justify their awards and demonstrate that they have considered municipalities’ ability to pay.

Police and fire wages and benefits consume about two-thirds of Lancaster’s budget, mayoral chief of staff Pat Brogan said, speaking on behalf of Mayor Rick Gray.

Act 111 awards have swelled expenses “in spite of reductions in force levels,” she said.

Other municipal leaders gave similar testimony, including Ralph Hutchison and Dan Zimmerman, managers of East Lampeter and Warwick townships, respectively.

Arbitrators often take months or years before issuing a ruling, making budgets uncertain and necessitating retroactive pay hikes, they said.

"That’s not Act 111’s fault," said Richard Poulson, a lawyer for the police and firefighters’ unions.

It contains strict deadlines, but municipalities waive them, he said.

“We don’t need to amend the law,” he said.

He predicted an explosion of court appeals if arbitrators are required to justify their decisions using ability-to-pay criteria.

Gary Lightman, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, concurred. Binding arbitration was intended to be a quick, straightforward process, an extension of collective bargaining process, but “the lawyers have ruined the process,” he said.

The proposed reforms would damage it further, he said.

Eichelberger said after the hearing that committee members generally favor reforming Act 111.

However, “those are tough bills to move,” given the police and firefighters unions’ opposition and the strong public support they enjoy, he said.

   
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