- - Wednesday, July 18, 2012

DETROIT — Detroit’s mayor slashed wages and reduced benefits for city workers Wednesday without any collective bargaining, one of the most severe steps taken so far as officials grapple with a crisis that has pushed the city to the brink of financial ruin.

Dave Bing imposed the new contracts on workers one day after the City Council narrowly rejected them. He was able to bypass the council by relying on terms of a new state law that gives him extraordinary powers to help improve the Motor City’s economic health.

The drastic cutbacks and eliminations are expected to save the cash-strapped city more than $100 million annually, Mr. Bing said.

“This is a tough day for me, a tough day for city workers and a tough day for all of Detroit,” Mr. Bing said.

“However, it is a necessary day. These savings are a key component of my administration’s plan to stabilize the city’s financial condition.”

Union officials blasted the move and suggested the possibility of legal action.

“You knew they were going to try something,” American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees Council 25 spokesman Ed McNeil said of the new contract terms. “We have to go back and fight some more.”

PENNSYLVANIA

City workers to get full pay this week

SCRANTON — Hundreds of workers in Pennsylvania’s sixth-largest city will get their full pay checks this week, but Scranton’s mayor said Wednesday there’s no guarantee he won’t again slash pay to the federal minimum wage.

Scranton public employees will see their paychecks restored to normal Friday, though they won’t include back pay they’re owed from their July 6 checks, Mayor Chris Doherty said.   

Two weeks ago Mr. Doherty cut the pay of about 400 workers to the minimum $7.25 per hour, prompting public employee unions to file legal challenges in county and federal courts.

Mr. Doherty ordered the pay cuts in defiance of a county judge’s order requiring that the workers get their contractually mandated pay.

The mayor said at the time that the city simply didn’t have enough cash on hand to meet its normal biweekly payroll of about $1 million. Mr. Doherty said the city only had $83,000 available after the minimum wage paychecks totaling $311,000 went out.

The City Council and Mr. Doherty are locked in a dispute over a financial recovery plan for the cash-strapped city. Both sides have said they’re making progress in negotiations, trying to reach a deal by Aug. 1 to receive a no-interest loan of $2 million and a $250,000 grant from the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

Scranton faces a $16.8 million shortfall in its projected $85 million budget. The council has balked at Mr. Doherty’s plan to increase property taxes and add a garbage collection fee to get bank loans to help pay bills and refinance debt.

The city of 76,000 lost an expensive court battle last year requiring it to pay millions in arbitration awards.

OREGON

Mom whose son fell from roof indicted

MEDFORD — A grand jury has indicted the mother of a 3-year-old Oregon boy who fell off a building — and into the arms of a neighbor — on charges of criminal mistreatment.

The boy was caught by the neighbor the morning of July 1 after hanging onto a small lip around the edge of the roof of the three-story building, where his family lived in an apartment, officials in Medford said.

The child’s mother, Amelia Smith, 22, will be arraigned on the felony charges in Jackson County within two weeks, the Mail Tribune newspaper reported Wednesday.

Kristen Beach was standing outside her apartment building when she heard the child screaming from across the street. She knew the toddler lacked the strength to pull himself back to the roof and reassured him that she would catch him if he fell from the building.

Though she was trying to do a good deed, Ms. Beach was concerned that she would be held responsible if she dropped the boy.

“I was completely ready,” she told the Mail Tribune newspaper at the time. “But, I was terrified.”

The boy let go. Ms. Beach held fast to his torso when she caught him, her knees giving way under his weight.

Neither Ms. Beach nor the boy was injured.

CALIFORNIA

Company to pay nearly $50M in wildfire

SACRAMENTO — California’s largest timber company has agreed to pay nearly $50 million and donate 22,500 acres of land to settle a lawsuit over a 2007 wildfire that destroyed about 65,000 acres in Northern California.

Sierra Pacific Industries denied liability, despite agreeing to the settlement announced Tuesday. Federal prosecutors said the Moonlight Fire was caused by two unsupervised employees who operated bulldozers on a red-flag warning day with high fire danger.

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said company contractors working on private land failed to follow fire regulations, sparking the blaze that burned for more than two weeks and consumed more than 46,000 acres of public land in Plumas and Lassen national forests northwest of Lake Tahoe.

Mr. Wagner characterized the settlement as the largest federal recovery ever for damages caused by a forest fire.

William Warne, a timber company attorney, said federal prosecutors would not have been able to prove at a trial that the company was responsible for the fire, but a judge’s pretrial ruling led attorneys to believe Sierra Pacific might be forced to pay damages anyway.

The case is part of a broader battle over limiting the amount of damages that government agencies can recover from private companies when fire damages public land.

ALABAMA

Bar-shooting suspect was fired after fistfight

TUSCALOOSA — The suspect in a shooting rampage at an Alabama bar had been fired from his job after a fistfight with a co-worker in the spring, police said Wednesday, elaborating on one of many problems that vexed the man in recent months.  

Nathan Van Wilkins told police in April he was angry about his firing, and he was pressing assault charges against the co-worker, said Brookwood Assistant Police Chief Jimmy Sellers. The other man had also been fired but not arrested.

It’s not clear what role the firing from Capstone Oilfield Services may have played in the shootings early Tuesday that wounded at least 17 at a bar. Chief Sellers said he is not aware of any connection between the shooting victims and the company.

But Mr. Wilkins had many stresses in his life. He had declared bankruptcy last year — court records show it was for the third time since 1991 — and faced a hearing in a couple of weeks. The move prevented a credit union from garnishing his wages at Capstone to collect a $15,000 debt. In 2005, his wife of 16 years divorced him.

Police have charged Mr. Wilkins, 44, with 18 counts of attempted murder, which includes a charge for a shooting at a house about 45 minutes before the bar rampage. Mr. Wilkins is also suspected of setting three fires to equipment or property owned by Capstone.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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