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May 4, 2013

Blair lawmaker proposes plan to tackle pension costs

— State Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, believes he has outlined a “common sense” way to help municipalities deal with ever-increasing pension costs. The Pennsylvania Heroes Coalition, an alliance of the state’s police and firefighters unions, calls the same proposal “baseless and shameful.”

And therein is the starting point for discussions between the two.

Eichelberger  soon will put forth a seven-point proposal for amending Pennsylvania’s collective bargaining law for police and firefighters, commonly known as Act 111, which was originally enacted in 1968. The bill’s wording is being finalized now. Co-sponsors are being sought.

“We’re not eviscerating Act 111,” said Eichelberger. “We’re just addressing the concerns that communities have.”

His plan drew a pointed response from the Fraternal Order of Police and Pennsylvania Professional Fire Fighters Association.

In a letter, they called the proposal an attack on individuals who risk their lives every day to protect citizens.

“We certainly don’t see a need for a change to the legislation,” said Johns-town resident Art Martynuska, president of the firefighters’ union.

Eichelberger’s plan deals with how arbitration cases are handled. His proposed legislation would 1) create a timeline for the arbitration process, 2) put a system in place where the neutral member of a three-person panel is chosen by a coin toss, 3) prevent arbitrators from going beyond the law in the awards they give, 4) open the process to the public and press, 5) make municipalities and unions evenly split the costs of a hearing, as opposed to the current system in which municipalities cover two-thirds, 6) limit appeals to only cases in which the process was shown to be broken, and 7) require an arbitration board to issue a finding of fact at the end of a hearing.

“Every proposal in the legislation is a common sense modification,” Eichelberger said.

The coalition feels the changes are being proposed because special interest groups want to use the excuse of a poor economy as a reason to attack police and firefighters. “We’re kind of at a loss as to the driving factors behind it,” Martynuska said.

Eichelberger feels the plan would benefit cities, townships and boroughs in Pennsylvania’s Act 47 program for distressed municipalities, such as Johnstown, and other financially struggling communities.

For example, Johnstown’s pension fund is only 49 percent funded, according to City Manager Kristen Denne. The city would need an additional $20 million to make it full.

“The problem we’re looking at is that the cities are simply running out of the cash ability to pay off the pension plans,” said Denne.

In July 2012, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett signed a bill requiring arbitration settlements to comply with Act 47 guidelines. The law was adopted in response to an earlier state Supreme Court ruling that declared arbitration awards did not need to confirm to a distressed municipality’s recovery plan.

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