We can’t afford it.
In coming days, Spokane City Council will debate the pay package agreed to by city administrators, led by Mayor Mary Verner, and Local 270 of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, which is the largest employee union at City Hall.
We’ll hear how hard both sides worked in hammering out the details, how both sides compromised, how the workers sacrificed on health care and pension benefits as they “partnered” with the city to help solve a structural gap in the budget. We’ll hear about what’s fair and what’s equitable. But all of that doesn’t matter if we can’t afford it.
And we can’t.
The biggest budget item at City Hall is the workforce. Those 5 percent raises are projected to coincide with an average annual revenue increase of 3.5 percent. That’s not how you close a gap.
Not only that, but the taxpayers who will finance this pay increase aren’t doing so well. They are struggling with mortgages, declining home values and rapidly rising food and fuel costs. More and more of them are being laid off or taking pay cuts or seeing their salaries frozen.
The economic slump isn’t expected to subside anytime soon. Wall Street is in disarray, Washington state’s economic forecaster issued gloomy news on Thursday, and as a result the state’s budget shortfall could swell to $3.2 billion over the next two years. Idaho is feeling the same pain.
Spokane is not immune to this. We don’t reside in a bubble. The bargaining between the city and the union did not take place in the real world. During breaks in talks, negotiators should have ventured out and asked grocery clerks, office workers, carpenters, home builders, manufacturing employees and others what their recent pay increases have been. They should have asked them how much they pay for their portion of health care coverage, if they have any to begin with.
These are the people who will have to sustain the pay and benefits packages for the city and then either see municipal services curtailed or their taxes increased.
It is encouraging that city employees are picking up more of their health care costs, but dental is still free, employees are still covered 100 percent, co-pays remain relatively low and the cost of adding family members is dramatically lower than in the private sector.
The old argument that good pay and benefits are needed to retain government workers is eroding. Where are they going to go?
The road to the structural budget gap didn’t start with the Verner administration. Former Mayor Jim West agreed to even bigger pay increases. But this is where the U-turn must begin.
We simply can’t afford it.