Less Taxing Solutions • Labor agreements shouldn't exempt public employees from easing the economic crunch
Hartford Courant Editorial
January 11, 2009
Yes, public employees are people too. They buy homes, shop, pay taxes and do the things we all do that give our communities and economy a pulse.
It's also true, as Connecticut's new House Speaker Christopher Donovan noted last week, that public-employee unions didn't cause the state government's spiraling budget deficit.
No, but they ought to be part of the solution.
On Thursday, Gov. M. Jodi Rell called on lawmakers to overturn an arbitration award for unionized guards in the state's prison system. Based on the state's last best offer (made in sunnier times), the award calls for a 3 percent general wage increase the first year and 2 percent raises the next two.
Democrats, who make up two-thirds of the legislature, gave Mrs. Rell the cold shoulder. Mr. Donovan declined to say whether the House would even debate the issue.
This is no time for sacred cows. Unemployment in the state rose to 6.6 percent in November, the worst rate in 15 years. For Connecticut residents employed in the private sector, the recession has pushed the topic of raises into a deep freeze.
Public-sector employees can't be held immune. Salaries and benefits account for 29 percent of state government's operating budget. In municipal budgets, employee costs account for at least half of total operating expenses.
Yet when the economy shrinks, they tend to be insulated from the pinch.
On Dec. 1, for example, the Metropolitan District Commission, a nonprofit municipal corporation that provides drinking water and sewerage services to eight Hartford-area towns, approved cost-of-living raises of 3.5 percent for nearly 100 non-union employees. The raises went into effect Jan. 1 and will cost $319,140.
Since December 2006, MDC Chief Executive Officer Charles Sheehan's salary has gone from $185,400 to $237,337 — a 28 percent increase. The district's three other top executives have enjoyed similar raises.
Commissioners say the MDC's top executives were underpaid (which is probably true). The other increases, they said, are in line with raises negotiated with the district's three unions. But those contracts were negotiated in 2006 and 2007 — long before the current economic crisis.
By pushing ahead with these raises, commissioners displayed a tin ear for the times. We're in a deeply troubled economy, and all of us — including public employees — have to give it up for the greater good.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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