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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: New mayor should have voice in union talks

In an unusual move, Spokane City Hall’s largest union and the outgoing mayor are touting a three-year compensation package that freezes wages in exchange for preserving a raise of up to 5 percent for some workers next year. Benefits would be untouched.

Soon-to-be former Mayor Mary Verner called the deal excellent. Local 270 President Joe Cavanaugh called it unprecedented. We don’t doubt the one-of-a-kind nature of a lame-duck mayor cutting a long-term deal while foreclosing other options, but we sure hope the practice doesn’t catch on. If it did, the other unions might line up.

All city collective bargaining agreements should be reviewed, and much more methodically.

As incoming mayor David Condon said, “These things normally go through a much more thorough process. It seems like a Hail Mary pass at the end of the term.”

One of the problems with this deal is that the electorate didn’t hail Mary, and City Hall labor costs were a significant campaign issue. We respect the fact that Verner has gained employee compensation concessions during her term in office, and that she wants to leave the city budget in a good position. But Condon wants the same things, and the voters have placed him in the position to make those deals.

He says he wasn’t consulted or even given a heads-up.

The other issue is whether Condon can gain more concessions in a bid to address the chronic, long-term structural budget deficits that are bedeviling many municipalities. One of the chief cost drivers is health care costs, but under this deal premiums would have to increase by about 23 percent before the city could reopen the contract and ask employees to absorb more of the costs. That’s a high threshold, even with the recent inflation in premiums. Benefits must be part of the discussion.

Gavin Cooley, the city’s chief financial officer, zeroed in on this problem, noting that “cities and states have begun making significant changes to their very generous employee benefit packages.” He added, “that opportunity is left on the table with this proposed agreement and that is something the council will have to take a hard look at.”

Condon, who is attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Boston, said Friday that panelists on employee costs were mobbed with questions because cities everywhere cannot balance their budgets under the current employee contracts without severely curtailing services.

The City Council will address this proposed deal on Monday night. Members ought to leave the negotiations up to the new mayor. It would be poor form to undercut him before he takes office.

Cavanaugh said the union wants to preserve jobs and solidify the budget. Those opportunities will remain after Condon is sworn in.

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