It began Wednesday with a call to Tacoma City Hall to find out what, if any, cost-of-living increases city workers received this year. I was trying to gather local information for an editorial about what’s happening up in King County, where government workers are going without COLAs, as they are called, to minimize layoffs as agencies grapple with budget shortfalls.
The answer to my question was easy to come by: Yes, the city had given at least some employees raises this year and last. But nailing down how much of a raise – and what the cost to the city budget has been – is proving much more difficult to discern.
Some quick background: In late 2008, during the depths of a recession, the Tacoma City Council decided to proceed with a long-planned move to rejigger city workers’ pay. The immediate cost to the city and its utilities: $6 million to bring nonunion employees up to what a consultant had determined was market pay.
The new pay and classification structure gave 776 out of 942 nonunion employees more pay. The average raise was 8 percent, with employees making more than $100,000 getting significantly higher bumps.
At the time, we were told that implementing market-based wages for nonunion workers would make it easier for the city to do the same for the bulk of its workforce, which is unionized. The idea was to instill more discipline into union negotiations that had for too long been deferred to union wish lists and to get back to bargaining with a clear sense of what the city can afford.
Over the last year and half, the city has embarked on a process to complete market surveys and overhaul pay structures for the 15 bargaining units that represent 1,864 union workers. To date, the city and its utilities have settled with nine unions; it still is negotiating or finalizing new pay scales for five unions that represent 1,028 workers.
This much I know: The city is now paying many workers more as a result of its new pay scales, in many cases even more than it anticipated. What I can’t say, because the city doesn’t seem to have the information, is how much more. It doesn’t know how much the average pay raise per bargaining unit was, nor what the net impact has been to the city budget.
Granted, the calculations are not simple: Every employee within those nine different bargaining units might have received a different pay bump (or none at all) when they were placed in the new salary schedule; the nine contracts have different retroactive dates, and the 2009-2010 city budget was built in anticipation of the reclassifications so the money’s that been added since to cover the new salaries doesn’t fully reflect the actual cost.
But with city residents being told to brace themselves for a grim budget as well as possible double-digit increases in water and electricity rates, they have a right to know how much of the city’s financial pinch is due to more generous worker compensation.
City staffers say they are working on getting us those numbers. It’s troubling that apparently no one at the city had thought to track this information before now.