Robert Lawson Sep. 6, 2016, 10:09am


PITTSBURGH — The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) in Pittsburgh has been involved with a civic conundrum over police union member contracts and, as part of an Act 47 challenge, will now head to court over the matter.

The dispute has reached a new level after a second round of arbitration failed to produce tangible results for either party. The FOP is alleging that the city is in violation of Act 47, a state law created to help municipalities in economic distress, and is seeking a court's decision to send the matter to a new arbitrator.

The FOP in Pittsburgh, as is the case with many other urban U.S. police departments and particularly those in economically distressed areas of Pennsylvania like Pittsburgh, Scranton and others, says that officers' compensation packages continue to deteriorate. The FOP says it becomes difficult to recruit and retain officers in those conditions. 

Negotiations have been taking place for more than two years, Bob Swartzwelder, FOP Lodge #1 president, told the Pennsylvania Record in an interview last week. 

"We began the negotiations process back in February of 2014," Swartzwelder said. 

Swartzwelder said it is quite common for the city and the FOP to square off over these concerns because of the economic, political and geographic nature of the problems.  

"It's quite common for the City of Pittsburgh and the FOP and probably other cities and other unions because we're economically stressed communities and it's often used as a sword, not a shield," Swartzwelder said. 

"I think it's a lot easier when you're not in an economically stressed community than when you are." 

Swartzwelder said the negotiations have not produced an actual offer, technically, and gave his evaluation of the arbitration process. 

"It wasn't an offer," Swartzwelder said. "It's an outside coordinator coming in telling you this is what you're supposed to get to hold the line on the budget. 

"It would keep us about $20-25,000 lower than other police agencies around us. We're the lowest paid in our region - full-time police I'm talking about."

Swartzwelder didn't mince words. He was clear that the relationship between Mayor Bill Peduto and the city and police is quite strained, considering the two-year negotiations process, failed arbitration and pending court dates. 

"We had our first meting with the mayor on Monday, Aug. 29, 2016," he said. "Remember this has been going on since February 2014. It's obviously either been strained or nobody was concerned about it."

The FOP president said the process could take quite a while longer yet. He spoke briefly about the consequences. 

"Right now the consequences are that we operate under the arbitration decision as it was written," he said. "So we work under those conditions until we get resolution under Commonwealth Court or common pleas court. We have two appeals going forward. Its very strange. It could take a little while."

Officers' current compensation package includes 1 to 2 percent raises and higher payments for healthcare options. Under these conditions, the community falls into the state's Act 47 decision. 

Swartzwelder made an appeal to the municipality and lawmakers regarding the complicated state of affairs between one of the city's critical forces for public safety and the needs of public budget accountability. 

"I would like to see the state Legislature correct the fact that when communities are placed in Act 47, the politicians that are supposed to run the plan actually follow the plan rather than take money from employees to fund one of their pet projects," he said. 

"The entire law too often serves as a facade to be used as a sword on employees rather than a shield to restore financial stability to the community."

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