Tuesday, March 29, 2011
By Jon Schmitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato said there was still a chance to reverse Port Authority service cuts and layoffs that took effect on Sunday if the transit workers union would accept one of his two cost-cutting proposals.
Mr. Onorato went public with details of his proposals on Monday after declining to comment on them during a last-ditch effort that fell apart on Friday to avert the cuts.
The proposals, which were reported in Saturday's Post-Gazette, each would require about $20 million in union givebacks. They included a wage freeze, health care and pension concessions and overtime and work rules changes.
Union leaders rejected both, calling them too painful. They offered their own plan to give back an estimated $16 million to $18 million in wage cuts. An analysis by the Port Authority put the savings at $14.7 million.
Mr. Onorato Monday said he turned that down as "not realistic," explaining it would do nothing to address ballooning health care and retiree costs that he predicted would bankrupt the authority by June 2012.
"I'm better off doing no deal than a bad deal," he said in a meeting with Post-Gazette editors.
Joseph Pass Sr., attorney for Local 85, Amalgamated Transit Union, responded later, saying Mr. Onorato had never demanded that health care reform be part of the deal. He said Mr. Onorato had told the union "just give me $20 million [in concessions]. I don't care how you get it."
Both of Mr. Onorato's proposals would have frozen wages and restricted overtime payments to hours in excess of 40 per week. The current contract allows workers to collect overtime for work in excess of eight hours per day, even if they don't work 40 hours for the week.
One proposal would have increased employee pension contributions from the current 4.5 percent to 11.5 percent of total compensation. The other called for an increase to 13.875 percent.
One proposal changed workers' health care contributions from the current 3 percent of income to 20 percent of the premium cost, with employees paying the full cost of any upgrades from base coverage. The other did not change employee contributions but would have stripped many current workers of post-retirement health coverage.
Both proposals called for reining in the drivers' right to pick routes based on seniority. Instead of four "picks" per year, there would be two.
Mr. Onorato acknowledged that the proposals were "tough" but said he was disappointed neither was put to a union vote. "The drivers never got to see it. They have no idea what's in there," he said.
He said the authority currently is paying $31.5 million a year for health care for 3,300 retirees -- more than the 2,700 active employees who get it. By contrast, the much bigger SEPTA transit agency in Philadelphia spends $8 million, he said. Neither of his proposals would have eliminated health care for current retirees, but Mr. Onorato said the authority needs to do something to start bringing down its costs. "If it doesn't get dealt with, Port Authority will go bankrupt. It's over with," he said.
Mr. Onorato also released copies of an email from his chief of staff to the union on Friday offering to delay the service cuts and layoffs by seven days if union president Patrick McMahon signed off on one of the two proposals and agreed to recommend approval in a vote by the rank-and-file.
The union's proposal offered an immediate 10 percent wage cut and to forgo a 3 percent raise scheduled for January. Union officials valued the givebacks at $16 million to $18 million but Mr. Onorato said various conditions attached to the offer made it worth far less.
He said the union demanded a "sunset" provision that would have restored the lost wages as part of the baseline for the next contract talks in 2012. There were other scenarios in which some of the wage money would have been restored before then.
Port Authority officials had an additional concern -- the proposal said the concessions would remain in effect "so long as the status quo is maintained until June 30, 2012," which they interpreted as barring any changes to the transit system, small or large.
Mr. Onorato said if the union accepted one of his offers, the county and the Port Authority would pitch in an additional $10 million through increased county aid and another fare increase. That would be enough to keep service at the levels that existed before Sunday, at least through June 2012.
While Mr. Onorato was willing to consider raising the county subsidy -- if workers agree to concessions -- spokesman Kevin Evanto said he would not support a stand-alone proposal from county council President Jim Burn to allocate an additional $5 million to the Port Authority.
Mr. Burn's measure would require the transit agency's board to reverse the 15 percent service cutbacks. Council will discuss the resolution to reopen the county budget during a special meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the courthouse.
Mr. Burn predicted that he and Mr. Onorato would be able to work out their differences on Port Authority funding after they meet face to face in the next few days.
If Mr. Onorato's opposition to Mr. Burn's resolution stands, it would appear to be an insurmountable obstacle. Under the county charter, support of two-thirds of council members and the approval of the county executive are needed to make budget changes, Mr. Evanto said.