Firing A Shot | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Firing A Shot

Fire fighters' union president wants to lay off city councilors

Mayor Tom Murphy's decision to lay off 731 workers will save the city a projected $6.5 million a year. But the city may lose much more than that in goodwill -- which has been in short supply throughout the city's public safety department lately.

Murphy hopes to merge the city's fire bureau and paramedics, a consolidation he says will save $15 million a year. But minutes after Murphy announced on Aug. 6 that 27 paramedics would be among those laid off, a livid Jeff Vesci was telling reporters the merger was off. Vesci, the head of the paramedics' union, was outraged that Murphy had not given him advance warning of the layoffs. After months of merger talks, he demanded, "I find out because he has a press conference?" Vesci pledged that "there is no merger. & We're not working on anything with this mayor."

Mayoral spokesman Craig Kwiecinski says it's too soon to tell what effect the layoffs might have on merger talks. "They've certainly expressed their frustration, and we appreciate that." Why wasn't Vesci told about the layoffs in advance? "Mr. Vesci was contacted by the mayor at the number he has on file at the personnel office" but couldn't be reached in time. Deputy Mayor Bob Kennedy gave a similar explanation when Vesci showed up at the mayor's office Aug. 7 with a phalanx of reporters and union members. It didn't appear to mollify Vesci, who demanded to know if Murphy had tried his cell phone or office number.

The fire fighters, meanwhile, have taken news of the layoffs in stride. But none of them have lost their jobs, thanks to protections written into a contract Murphy negotiated shortly before earning the union's endorsement in his 2001 re-election campaign. But Joe King, president of Pittsburgh Fire Fighters Local No. 1, has headaches of his own.

City Councilor Bill Peduto has been calling for the city to file for a kind of municipal bankruptcy protection as a way of renegotiating the contract, and King has decided to fight fire with fire. He sent Peduto a July 30 missive insisting that even with a bankruptcy filing, the fire fighters' contract "protects my organization until 2006. You can't touch us." To Peduto's argument that fire bureau staffing has remained constant even while the population has shrunk, King countered with a cost-cutting proposal of his own: "We had nine (9) councilman & when we had 600,000 in population. We still have nine (9) with only 334,000 in population. What's wrong with this picture?"

King's letter says even councilors and their employees can keep their jobs, but seems to target Peduto's seat nonetheless: "I believe in maintaining jobs and workers even with council representatives and staff," it continues. But if it weren't for Peduto's colleagues "you can bet we would be coming. This is not a threat, this is as promise."

"I understand the job he has to do for his members," says Peduto, "but my job is for the city." While Peduto agrees that the current contract is probably protected, he says a bankruptcy filing would give the city leverage in future negotiations.

In the short term, Peduto may already be gaining leverage from an unlikely source: younger police officers, 100 of whom are likely to lose their jobs. Although officers have called for council to be impeached along with the mayor, some may harbor resentment toward the fire fighters as well. "Some of the younger cops are telling me they agree with what I'm trying to do," Peduto says.