Act 111 reform is needed in Pennsylvania

Last night, the Lower Macungie Board of Commissioners (BOC) voted unanimously to continue with Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) as our primary police provider. This decision came after conducting a comprehensive crime study. Results show we have the 7th lowest crime rate of Pennsylvania’s 35 largest townships. Our rate is 1/3 of Lehigh County’s average.

We have the luxury of basing a decision on data. We’re statistically a safe community and PSP does an outstanding job. Someday however, our community will have to address the method by which we secure coverage. This will happen either when A. crime data rises or B. state requires municipalities pay for PSP. This may happen in 5 years or it may happen in 20 years. No one knows.

Understanding some day we’ll face this decision we must consider all the factors involved. One of those factors is efforts to reform Act 111. Act 111 outlines how municipalities are required to negotiate legacy costs that make local police/fire departments financially unsustainable. 41 percent of Pennsylvania’s population live in municipalities facing fiscal distress. Local police/fire services are the single biggest cost item in many local budgets.

Act 111 arbitration awards contribute to escalating costs by handcuffing local governments. The act requires unions and municipalities to engage in binding arbitration during contract disputes. While the intent is good, the mechanism is 45 years old and needs reform. Act 111 gives unions unfair advantages – reaping large settlements that cost us all.

Until reforms are addressed as one member of the 5 person BOC I am wary about taking Lower Macungie down a path where issues like this are front and center where unelected outside arbitrators have so much power. Someday we’re going to have to address the potential of a local force. Until then it’s a concern that we don’t enter the township into a flawed system 

Here are two examples where Act 111 has led to financial stress and tax increases:

1. In 2013 after a 19 month Act 111 process paid for by Borough taxpayers, an unelected “neutral” arbitrator with no ties to the community rendered a ruling that forced Chambersburg to hike taxes. Here, Act 111 prohibited a locally elected council from managing their paid fire department in the best interests of their residents.  Read more here: From town council to the citizens of Chambersburg Borough.

2. Last year Bristol Twp. was forced into Act 111 Arbitration seeking relief from $85.8 Million in unfunded liabilities including $77 Million in Post-Retirement Health obligations. Bristol received nothing from an unelected arbitrator to help reduce crippling legacy costs. The union was awarded 4% and 3.5% raises. Today the township has 10 less Police officers than it did in 2012. Unfunded liabilities have now increased to $91 Million. The can was kicked down the road and the underlying issues were left.

Act 111 has serious consequences for communities. It removes what should be exclusively local decisions from residents and their elected officials. The system requires municipalities to negotiate in good faith but unions don’t. Everyone wants to see fire and police professionals treated fairly. The intent of Act 111 is good, but as it stands today it’s a 45-year-old outdated law in desperate need of modernization.

There are those seeking fair reform of Act 111. I support these efforts. Our State Senator Pat Browne (R) 16 is one of them signing on as a co-sponsor of SB 1111. The bill was crafted by Sen. John Eichelberger, (R) Blair, chairman of the Senate Local Government Committee.

Senator Browne addressed his position in a statement:After 45 years, it is appropriate that the General Assembly take a comprehensive look at the local government collective bargaining process to ensure it strikes the proper balance between the rights of our important municipal police and firefighters and the taxpaying public,” Senator Pat Browne said. “We should ensure that when labor contract decisions are taken out of the hands of local elected officials and placed in arbitration that the process maximizes transparency and thoroughly considers the implications that any prospective reward will have on both municipal financial sustainability and public safety employment attraction/retention.

This is a large part of what SB 1111 addresses. Highlights of SB 1111 reforms include:

  • Penalize either party for failing to engage in good faith bargaining;
  • Must show ability to pay through justification and consideration of new costs;
  • Start arbitrator selection process between both parties by coin toss;
  • Expand the list from which a neutral arbitrator is selected from 3 to 7;
  • Require the cost of arbitration be shared equally between both parties;
  • Codify the avenues of appeal of an award by either side.
  • Require evidentiary hearings to be open to the public (sunshine law);
  • Prohibit post-retirement health care and pension benefits from being subjects of collective bargaining.

These reforms will inject much needed fairness into the Act. 111 process.

As an elected local municipal official I often have to deal with mandates that take away our ability to make the right decisions for residents of Lower Macungie. I believe that Act 111 reform is essential. The effort currently has widespread bi-partisan support from municipal leaders, business leaders and community development organizations such as the Pennsylvania Economy League, Coalition for Sustainable Communities and the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Commissioners.