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Smart Bombs: Police need to face facts

It’s disappointing to see the Spokane Police Guild resist the calls of Mayor Mary Verner to help close the projected $7 million budget deficit for the city of Spokane. Verner established a goal of collecting half that amount by gaining concessions from the various employee unions and she has gotten cooperation from several of them, including the Police Lieutenants and Captains Association and unrepresented members of Police Administration, according to a city press release.

However, the city is only halfway to its goal of achieving $3.5 million in savings. Last year the police assisted the city in closing the budget gap. That is commendable, but more is needed. The mayor recently announced that 22 police positions would be eliminated if compensation concessions are not made. The Police Guild has missed its deadline and time is running out.

The case for shared sacrifice, which would avert layoffs, would seem to be obvious. But the union appears to be clinging to the hope that the public won’t mind a drop-off in service in exchange for salary protection.

That is a serious misreading of public sentiment, because taxpayers are tapped out. As Sgt. Joe Friday said, “Just the facts.” Well, here they are.

The median annual household income in the city is $39,000. A starting police officer makes $42,270 annually. A 10-year veteran brings home $68,988. As of spring of 2009, a top-scale officer in Spokane made $76,000. His counterpart in Bellevue made the same. Top-scale officers in Vancouver make $75,000; in Tacoma, it’s $73,000. In all of those places, the median household income is higher.

Spokane residents are not being cheap. They’re not being whiny. They’re being realistic.

They are suffering through pay cuts, furloughs and high unemployment. They are shouldering a much higher percentage of health care costs than public employees. Most do not have pension plans. They are wondering why they can’t keep pace with the public employees they pay for. This is especially true of police officers and firefighters.

While they are frustrated with a police sergeant arrested on a drunken driving charge, they are stunned that he pulls in $91,000 a year.

In Spokane? That’s real money.

For most people, it isn’t personal. They greatly appreciate the dangerous work done by police. They just can’t afford the generous salaries any more. Police can react to that in good faith or they can patrol in denial.

The grass isn’t MuCH greener. Conservatives are fond of touting the big health care savings that could be realized by allowing people to shop across state lines. The idea is that states with fewer mandates on health insurers will have cheaper policies, and these savings will be passed along to consumers. The free market to the rescue!

First, a small fraction of people even shop for their own insurance. Most are in group plans provided by employers or in government plans. Second, research on the possible savings hasn’t been promising.

In 2007, Rutgers University studied across-stateline shopping and concluded: “Despite exhaustive research, little compelling evidence exists that state health insurance mandates do, in fact, have a significant impact on costs.” In 2005, the Congressional Budget Office said some shoppers might save up to 5 percent. So a $12,000 annual policy for a family of four would cost $11,400 and offer less coverage. Last year, the California Health Benefits Review Program found that premiums would drop 4.8 percent if all 44 mandates were eliminated.

It’s easy to ridicule massage therapy or acupuncture as health mandates, but zapping them wouldn’t bring much relief.

Smart Bombs is written by Associate Editor Gary Crooks and appears Wednesdays and Sundays on the Opinion page. Crooks can be reached at or at (509) 459-5026.