Taxpayers can’t afford city workers’ rising wages

None of the many rationales for City Hall’s high compensation packages can change the fact that taxpayers cannot sustain them without absorbing a huge hit in services or continual tax increases.

The public wants neither, so the city’s leaders can count on substantial support in negotiating contracts with their employees. But first the public needs to be educated on the budget’s structural weaknesses.

Labor, energy and health care costs keep rising faster than revenue. Changes in law inspired by citizen initiatives have exacerbated the gap between costs and revenues. In particular, Initiatives 695 (car tabs) and 747 (1 percent cap on overall property tax collections) have taken big bites out of government budgets.

Private-sector workers have been forced to “give back” for quite some time. For them, there are no laws that ensure their wages are comparable to those of their counterparts in the Puget Sound region. A low-wage tax base cannot support West Side pay for police officers and firefighters.

About 80 city workers make more than Mayor Mary Verner, who has capped her pay at $100,000 annually. After 10 years, a firefighter can make $74,000; a police officer, $69,000 (not counting overtime). Those are dizzying numbers to the average Spokane worker, who makes $37,000 and is absorbing pay cuts, furloughs and higher costs for benefits.

In addition, city workers pay a lower percentage of their health care costs than do most private workers, and they enjoy two retirement plans – a traditional defined-benefit pension plan and one that resembles a 401(k) with an employer (i.e., taxpayer) match.

Against this backdrop, it is clear that the upward trajectory of City Hall pay and benefits has to end. Employee unions will have to take a more realistic stance during bargaining for contracts. This doesn’t mean that their work isn’t valued. It doesn’t mean that we’ve forgotten the days when some workers were underpaid. It simply means that we don’t have the money. A city that must ask residents for special assessments to maintain the streets and to hire police officers and firefighters is one that has an unsustainable budget.

City Hall needs to take a long look at its highest cost, which is labor. The gap between public-sector pay and those who foot the bill cannot continue to widen. This will take courageous leadership, because employee unions have significant clout. We can count on their intense involvement. It is up to the mayor and members of council to rally the public to the debate.

This is one community conversation we can’t afford to skip.

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