Reed, public safety unions clash over pay and pension lawsuit

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and public safety unions clashed Wednesday over ongoing pay issues and a lingering lawsuit challenging Reed’s now famous pension reform.

Several police officers and firefighters came to the city council finance committee to continue talks over what they say are pay inequities in their respective forces. For roughly a year, union leaders have met with Reed officials over “salary compression” —- the issue of some public safety workers being paid higher wages than longtime employees with more experience.

They hope the problem can be resolved before the Atlanta City Council approves its annual budget next month. But union leaders say despite promises of resolution, the talks have stalled.

Reed, in a forceful display, said he won’t approve raises or address salary compression while the city remains embroiled in a $48 million lawsuit with public safety unions over pension reform he championed in his first term.

Reed has long said overhauling the employee retirement benefits program was critical to the city’s financial stability, and will help Atlanta pay off a $1.5 billion looming pension liability.

“I am not going to approve any budget with a raise while we are being sued for $48 million,” said Reed, noting he’s previously given raises to public safety workers. “You’re not going to rob the train and shoot the conductor in the head at the same time, and that’s what you’re trying to do here.”

Ken Allen, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 623, said the lawsuit is seeking clarity on whether the city had the right to increase pension contributions without giving additional benefits.

A handful of union workers representing Atlanta fire, police and city employees filed the lawsuit last November, alleging the 2011 ordinance requiring employees to pay a 5 percent increase toward their benefit plans is a breach of contract and therefore unconstitutional. The plaintiffs have since received class action status.

“This is not to unravel work that we’ve done, not to bankrupt the city,” Allen said. “It’s for us to get that question answered.”

If the judge sides with the plaintiffs, the decision would reverse $48 million employees have already paid in pension contribution increases, union officials said.

Stephen Borders, president of the Atlanta Professional Firefighters union who is a plaintiff in the legal challenge, said the unions have long suspected the lawsuit was holding up productive talks with Reed officials.

“The most positive thing that came out today was the mayor being willing to say there’s no love for employees because of this lawsuit,” Borders said.

The parties are scheduled to meet Thursday in Fulton County Superior Court, where a judge will weigh the city’s motions for dismissal, and separately, for summary judgment.

District 9 Councilwoman Felicia Moore said Wednesday she was unhappy the unions were taking the 2011 pension reform to court. Moore played a key role in reaching an agreement with the unions during those talks.

“I’m really disappointed that we’re doing a full circle on this,” said Moore, adding that overturning the pension ordinance would only hurt taxpayers and the employees themselves in the long-run. “You’re (cutting) off your nose, not only to spite your face, but your whole body.”

Just how the outcome of the lawsuit impacts the salary compression talks remains to be seen. Public safety union leaders have said resolving the pay inequities will cost more than $5 million. Reed spokeswoman Melissa Mullinax said the city’s human resources department estimates it would cost roughly $1.5 million.

The city set aside $500,000 last year to negotiate a solution.

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