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Vestal: Alleged givebacks are a cop-out

FRIDAY, SEPT. 24, 2010

It’s time for a real police concession

Give it back.

This is the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad mantra of this recession. Give back your job. Give back some salary. Give back your raise. Give back a week of pay. Give back a bigger piece of your paycheck for health care.

The deal for workers, as formerly understood – you do this, we give you that – is off. And it’s being redefined every day.

It’s horrible. It’s no good. It’s very bad.

And now Spokane’s cops and firefighters need to swallow a big dose of it. Not work around it by leaving important jobs unfilled. Not trade in a raise for extra vacation. Not tell us about the two unpaid days you worked six years ago.

The city says it can save 80 jobs if unions will give up their 4 percent raises for 2011 and agree to limit the city’s contribution to their health care plan. Another 40 spots will stay dark regardless. This isn’t a negotiation – the deals are signed – it’s a simple plea.

Give it back.

For the good of the city, if not those 80 people.

Easier said than done? Absolutely. The thing is, a lot of us out here have done it already. A third of working Americans have been without a job, period, at some point during the past three years, according to a Pew survey released over the summer. Twenty-eight percent of people with jobs had their hours reduced. Twenty-three percent took pay cuts.

Lousy all around.

Of the 120 overall positions that could go away, 47 are in the Police Department. Twenty-eight are firefighters.

We need cops and firefighters. As cops and firefighters routinely remind us.

So please. Give it back.

The picture so far is not heartening, at least so far as the police union is concerned. They have announced they are not agreeing to reopen their contract. They ain’t budging, in essence. It’s a mystery how the public ever fell out of love with them.

The guild went on the offensive Thursday, spreading a “fact” sheet about administrative raises to suggest a lack of seriousness about the budget among those at the top. This sheet included a few truthful figures – including a couple of double-digit raises in the past two years that are kind of flabbergasting – and a slew of faulty ones, in an attempt to paint a picture of self-dealing administrative largesse.

These figures were uncritically reported by a local TV station, and city administrators were understandably peeved about it Thursday, given the number of mistakes.

As satisfying as it is to bash those in authority – and as galling as it is to hear constant justifications for raising salaries at the top of organizations – the comparison isn’t apples and apples. It’s apples and orangutans. Administrators won’t get raises next year, because Mayor Mary Verner ordered a freeze months ago.

And it’s next year that the police, fire and other unions are being asked to forgo their raises.

So, nice try, guys. But give it back.

Because the budget can’t be balanced by taking away a couple of administrative raises. Not even close. The city will have to turn to its biggest expense by far – rank and file workers.

Ernie Wuthrich, the head of the Spokane Police Guild, said in an interview Wednesday that his union is not stubbornly refusing to help. This was the day before he sent a letter to the city saying the guild rejected the cap on medical benefits and was not agreeing to reopen its contract.

Last year, he said, the guild agreed to a change in shift hours that reduced the amount of overtime officers were earning – saving the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Some guys were making $15,000, $20,000 a year in overtime,” he said. “I think that’s a heck of a concession. I think that’s pretty responsible. That’s some of the fat people want trimmed, and our guys were willing to do it.”

Forgive me if I don’t weep. But giving up a steady gusher of routine overtime pay – three years into a recession, it’s difficult to call that a sacrifice.

What’s a real concession? Here’s what’s not: Last year’s deal by the police guild to give up a raise in exchange for 52 more hours of vacation. This was what you might call a win-win-lose situation. Police win. City budgeters win. Citizens lose – lose thousands of hours of police protection on the streets.

And one more thing, officers. If you work less and take home the same money, it’s a raise.

I want to note that, while I’m no Norma Rae, I’ve sat in union meetings and voted to approve a deal that made me feel ill. Argued over whether it made sense to accept a pay cut to try to preserve jobs.

It sucks. It’s no good. It’s very, very bad.

But we live in this world now. Not that one.

So suck it up. Give it back. I don’t want to be grandiose about it, but you owe it to the city – to the people who depend on you. Who pay those good salaries. And maybe, once the recession ends, if it ever does, you can come to the negotiating table and remind the city of what you’ve done.

Wuthrich pointed out an example of an administrator who was walking the walk, as far as salary goes: Verner.

The mayor is taking a salary of $100,000, less than two-thirds of what she’s entitled to.

“She put her money where her mouth is,” he said.

Exactly right, Ernie. Here’s hoping the unions follow her lead.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.

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