Where there's smoke, there's not always fire
I urge my fellow citizens to see through the smokescreen being erected by the city's firefighter union with regards to the referendum which is to appear on the general election ballot next month. Despite the wording, the referendum is not really about the issue of increasing/maintaining a standard recommended response time to emergency calls. Simply put, it's an attempt by the union to block the progress of the Act 47 recovery team in getting the City of Pittsburgh back on the track to financial good health. Union President Joe King is on record as saying that he'd prefer to "let the city go broke" rather than bring his department in line with where it should be according to the experts and compared to other comparable cities. He and the firefighters just cannot accept the numerous independent studies that question King's assertion that cuts in the department would jeopardize public safety. The fact remains that while the city's population has declined over the past ten years, the Fire Bureau budget has nearly doubled to $60 million -- even while firefighters only respond to about 60 fires a year. As a matter of fact, compared to cities of the same size, our fire bureau is overstaffed and over-stationed. And as a group, the firefighters are the highest paid city workers, eclipsing even the salary of Mayor Tom Murphy, with several earning in excess of $100,000 per year. There was a scandal surrounding the contract concessions that the firefighter union received before the heated mayoral primary election in 2001. Murphy agreed to extend the sweet contract terms, which included a no-layoff clause for the firefighters, and which was ratified just eight days before the primary election. That action cost the city dearly, both financially and in depriving Bob O'Connor the opportunity to lead. As a condition of ratification, the union reportedly had to publicly endorse Murphy, which it did. The 850-strong union backed the mayor, who narrowly defeated O'Connor by 699 votes. That action played a major role in defining the city's current financial crisis. We cannot allow the pursestrings of this city to be controlled by any self-serving group. The future of our city is more important than any labor union or city department. The firefighters of this city do their job extremely well -- nobody is denying that, but that is not what the referendum is about. And the labor unions are an important part of the fabric of the steel city, but the purpose of the referendum is not to affirm one's pro-labor stance. We cannot lose sight that the future of the City of Pittsburgh potentially hangs in the balance of this crucial vote. It's that important.