April 22, 2009 in Opinion

Our View: City should have risked arbitration on chiefs’ pay

 

Old assumptions ought to be tested every so often to see if they’re still valid. Especially assumptions that keep us from acting prudently.

At Spokane City Hall, for example, there seems to be an assumption that state law will let public safety unions get whatever they want in the collective bargaining process. This assumption stems from a bad experience that occurred more than 30 years ago but is cited every time city government negotiates a generous contract with its police officers or firefighters.

In 1973, the Legislature approved a binding arbitration process as a dispute-resolution method, because the law prohibits public safety workers from striking. Spokane immediately tested the law in court and lost. Then, in a 1978 standoff between the city and the Police Guild, an arbitrator awarded police a 17.3 percent raise for 1979, largely because Tacoma had just agreed to a large raise.

This week, the Spokane City Council approved raises, worth between 3.6 percent and 5.8 percent over the next four years, for 10 fire battalion chiefs. Those amounts are puny next to the raise police got in 1979, but to a community crushed by economic bad times, they look lavish.

Throughout this community, private-sector workers are losing jobs, taking pay cuts or going on unpaid furloughs. Unemployment here is higher than 10 percent, compared with 9.2 percent statewide and lower than that in the Puget Sound region.

The mayor’s office would have been prudent to be more tight-fisted at the bargaining table. Even without a recession, municipal budget writers complain of a “structural deficit,” which, translated loosely, means that government’s expenses grow about 2 percent faster than government’s income. The recession only aggravates that dilemma.

But the mayor’s negotiator, Gita Hatcher, said the battalion chiefs’ raises were consistent with what’s happening in other Washington cities and that’s what an arbitrator would have looked at. We agree the law relies on a flawed formula that is overdue for legislative attention, specifically its insistence on comparison with pay levels in “est Coast” cities. But an arbitrator may also consider other factors, including the cost of living.

If the city of Spokane was relying in this case on a 30-year-old assumption that was wrong, the potential savings could have been built into the budget. And if Hatcher was correct that arbitration would have produced the same outcome, what was there to lose?

The city should have chanced it.


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