Brian O’Neill of the local firefighters union joined other leaders of unions representing city workers in the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council to respond to the mayor’s call for a pay freeze | Photo by Joe Sonka

The leaders of several local unions representing thousands of city workers held a news conference outside of Metro Hall on Monday morning to tell Mayor Greg Fischer that they reject his request for a pay freeze in the next fiscal year — while also directing criticism toward Metro Council members who voted against the mayor’s call for more tax revenue three weeks ago.

An hour before the news conference was set to begin, Fischer issued a statement saying that he shared the frustration of workers about the current $35 million budget shortfall, but painful cuts could not be avoided because of the council’s rejection of the ordinance to increase the tax rate on insurance premiums.

Todd Dunn, the president of the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council — a coalition of unions representing over 50,000 private and public sector employees in the Louisville area — said that while “Frankfort politicians” were largely responsible for the shortfall, the mayor’s request for a pay freeze “basically asked them to pay for their own jobs,” which is “unacceptable.”

“We urge the Metro Council and mayor to work together to find a real solution that does not balance the budget on the backs of our frontline workers,” said Dunn.

Ron Richmond of AFSCME Local 962 — representing city workers at the Louisville Free Public Library, Parks & Recreation and Louisville Zoo — said their members have already been overworked in understaffed departments after years of cutbacks, expressing frustration that “the courage hasn’t been found to do some of the more difficult decisions.”

Brian O’Neill, the president of the local firefighters union, said they had lost 90 positions over the past 25 years as their run volume tripled, noting that firefighters could go to Indiana, Lexington or Cincinnati to make more money and receive a better pension.

“Metro Council had an opportunity to invest in the future of this city. They chose not to,” said O’Neill, adding that it is now up to council members to come up with ideas for budget savings and revenue “that’s not going to harm workers and keep this city moving in a forward direction.”

Tracy Dotson, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 77 representing Metro Corrections workers, directed criticism at those members who voted against the tax ordinance, which would have raised over $20 million in new revenue next year and limited budget cuts to $15 million.

“If you voted no … and you don’t have a third option or have an idea other than cutting jobs and cutting services, then I have a problem with that,” said Dotson. “So do my members and everyone up here.”

Dotson took specific aim at several members for the actions they took after their no vote. He said that Councilman David Yates, D-25, took a vacation to Hawaii immediately after his vote, while Republican Councilmen Anthony Piagentini and Kevin Kramer made “flippant comments” that offended him.

After the proposed tax ordinance was voted down 11-15 on March 21, Piagentini tweeted, “Read my lips (at least for this vote…). No new taxes.”

“That’s a very flippant comment to make when you’re talking about cutting jobs and freezing wages and you’re talking about people’s livelihoods,” said Dotson. “And you’re going to go on Twitter and say ‘Read my lips, no new taxes, lol’ when you’re making decisions in one of the highest seats of our government that’s affecting people’s jobs and families? That angered all of us.”

Kramer told WDRB last week that Fischer was right to propose a pay freeze, saying it could save the city $8 million and prevent further layoffs. To that, Dotson replied: “Don’t threaten us on TV. We keep this city running.”

“There’s an extreme indifference I see on this council with some of these no votes that were either pandering to their constituents or they just didn’t know the issue,” said Dotson. “And we take umbrage with that, heavily.”

Tony Hyatt, the spokesman for the Democratic caucus, says that Yates was unavailable for comment due to still being on his honeymoon. Kramer did not immediately return emailed questions to the director of the GOP caucus asking him to respond to Dotson’s criticism.

Piagentini told Insider Louisville that he stands by his vote against the tax increase and does not believe his tweet was flippant, saying it was a play off of George H.W. Bush’s famous campaign line from 1988. He also stated that he would meet with Dotson or any other labor leaders to discuss solutions to the current budget shortfall.

“I have met with and will continue to meet with any labor leader – including him – to talk about the impact this has on his members, to talk about ways to run the city more efficiently,” said Piagentini. “I don’t want to see a bunch of mass layoffs or pay cuts. I don’t want to see that for anybody.”

Asked if pay freezes and layoffs for city workers were prohibited in any of the unions’ collective bargaining contracts with the city, Dotson said that each contract is different and some prohibit layoffs, while others do not.

John Stovall of the Teamsters Local 783, representing about 1,000 city workers, said his members would not accept the mayor’s request for a pay freeze, but suggested that Metro Council members who support one should freeze their own pay first.

“I suggest to Metro Council that if they feel strongly about what they’re proposing to do right now, they take a pay freeze until they figure out how to fix this mess,” said Stovall. “They shouldn’t get paid until the budget is balanced.”

Council members made a salary of $47,833 last year.

Steve Haag, the director of the council’s Republican caucus, told Insider that eliminating the cost-of-living adjustment for city workers “is a way to save approximately $10 million annually and would help to maintain more of the services provided by Louisville Metro,” which would also affect the pay of council members.

In his statement released before the news conference, Fischer said he understood how deeply frustrated workers were by his request, but again pointed the finger of council’s rejection of new tax revenue, as “now my team and I are forced to put together an FY 2020 budget to implement the $35 million in cuts.”

Fischer stated that with 70% of the city budget going to employees who provide services, “that makes it impossible to balance this budget without hurting hardworking, talented people.” He added that while he hated the idea of a pay freeze, it was only sought “as a way to have to avoid some of the layoffs we face.”

“I hate the idea of asking these men and women to give up their COLAs, just as I hate the other cuts we’ll need to make,” stated Fischer. “That’s why I proposed new revenue. I will continue to work with these valued employees to see how we can implement the Council’s cuts with as little pain to them and our residents as possible.”

In early February, Fischer released a spreadsheet listing potential budget cuts he may have to propose if Metro Council did not raise new tax revenue, which included 317 layoffs of city workers across many departments in the next fiscal year alone, as well as 246 additional positions lost through attrition.

Referring to his request to the labor leaders for pay freezes on Friday, Fischer said, “we have contracts with them that we’re certainly going to respect.”

The mayor is scheduled to present his proposed budget to Metro Council at its meeting on April 25, and council must pass a final budget by June 25, the last meeting before the new fiscal year begins on July 1.

This story has been updated.

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]