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Now is not the time

Nov. 30, 2009

by Ivan Raconteur

Are public employees part of this economy, or isolated from it?

This is a question that came to mind while I listened to a discussion about a proposed 2.5 percent wage increase for non-union employees in Wright County last week.

The county had previously approved a 2.5 percent wage increase for its union employees, and in the end, on a 3-2 vote, the county board approved the same increase for non-union employees.

Before we dig into the discussion that led to that decision, I want to be clear that I have nothing against public employees. I work with county and city employees every week, and among them are some of the brightest and most conscientious workers I have met.

However, I sometimes wonder if there is a disconnect between public employees and taxpayers.

Comments that were made during the debate about the wage increase in Wright County contribute to this impression.

Some of the comments from department heads and commissioners indicated that the board and the departments have saved the taxpayers a lot of money under the current budget, the implication being that because money was saved in one area, we shouldn’t complain if some of that money is spent somewhere else.

What this seems to overlook is that it was the taxpayers’ money to start with, and taxpayers expect elected officials and public employees to save money wherever possible.

This is their job. They are not just doing us a favor by being responsible stewards of public funds.

One commissioner said he would not vote for anything that would deprive one group of employees of a raise when other employees received one. I respect his vision of fairness, but this seems like a dangerous precedent.

I am uncomfortable with any automatic across-the-board pay increase. It seems to me pay increases should be based on performance, not on what everyone else is getting.

What is the incentive for individual employees to perform well when they are getting dragged along with the tide and receiving wage increases just because their co-workers are getting them?

Another sentiment that was repeated, and which caught my attention, was that employees should not be blamed for the state of the economy, and should not be penalized for the economic mess in which we find ourselves.

Does this mean that the thousands of employees who have been laid off in the private sector deserved to be laid off? Is the state of the economy the fault of the countless others who have been subjected to wage freezes or cuts, or to forced unpaid days or reductions in hours or benefits?

It seems a bit precious to say that public employees are innocent and should continue to get raises while the rest of the world is taking a beating.

There are a lot of innocent people in the private sector who, through no fault of their own, are struggling to put bread on the board, or who have been looking for work for months. These workers would like to be immune from the economic downturn as well, but unfortunately, they don’t have that option.

One department head described the suggestion that the county board not approve the requested wage increase for non-union employees as “a moral issue,” because these employees do the work and they deserve a raise.

There are plenty of good workers who have been laid off and who are working two or three part-time jobs at low wages just to get by. Some of these people have college degrees and years of experience. They may “deserve” raises too, but they are not getting them.

The fact that so many workers are surviving without health insurance or other benefits is the real moral issue.

One department head said the county employees were loyal, because they continued to work for Wright County when they could have gone to other counties and earned more. One might point out that they could also move to the private sector, and earn a lot less, and receive less attractive benefit packages.

The final comment that caught my attention was from a department head who said “the board has done an outstanding job and needs to stand up to the public in regards to upcoming levies and property tax increases.”

This was news to me. It was my impression that the duty of elected officials was to represent their constituents, not to “stand up to them” to protect out-of-touch public employees.

Wright County is only one example of governmental insensitivity to the conditions out on the street, and there have been plenty of others. I commend the elected officials who have addressed the reality of what is being faced by their constituents.

I am not suggesting that public employees do not deserve wage increases, I am merely questioning whether this is the right time.

Whether it is the result of union contracts that were negotiated prior to the economy taking a nose dive, or the result of elected officials trying to be “fair” to non-union employees, one thing is clear: from a taxpayers’ perspective, it feels rather like getting smacked across the kisser with a cold halibut to be asked to pony up raises for public servants when the people who are paying the bills have no hope of getting any raises, and may still be taking pay cuts.

I respect public employees, and I understand the department heads’ impulse to defend their workers, but it is difficult to accept the proposition that public employees should be somehow isolated from the economy as a whole, and should be exempt from the hardships that workers in every other industry are experiencing.

One hopes that some day soon, things will turn around so all of us can breathe a little easier. Until then, it is a bit distasteful to ask taxpayers to dig deeper in their shrinking wallets to pay for raises for public employees.