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County budget strained by legacy union contracts

Post by Kim Bradford on Nov. 11, 2010 at 6:11 pm |
November 11, 2010 5:13 pm

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

Pierce County government is on its way up.

Headed northward: fees to use county parks and facilities, the cost of a permit to remodel a house, sewer rates – all a part of the 2011 county budget approved by the County Council this week to cover an anticipated $8 million deficit.

Something else that’s rising: county salaries.

Thanks to employment contracts negotiated before county officials realized the full scope of the recession, county workers will get raises of at least 2.5 percent this year.
In many cases, the bumps will be offset by furloughs and higher health care costs. But long after those savings are recouped, the 2011 raises will remain a part of employees’ base salaries and become an ongoing cost of doing business for Pierce County.

That incremental escalation of worker compensation has a high cost.

As The News Tribune’s Kris Sherman reported Sunday, county workers’ average annual pay grew by more than 23 percent from 2005 to 2009. Private-sector workers in Pierce County saw only a 14 percent increase in the same time frame.

County officials may balk at direct correlations between higher pay, fewer services and increased fees, but it’s hard to argue that salaries don’t have any bearing on the county’s budget woes.

Despite belt-tightening that shrunk the county’s workforce by nearly 6 percent between 2005 and 2009, the share of the county budget dedicated to pay and benefits has risen from 68 to 72.5 percent.

County officials asked unions to forgo this year’s “cost-of-living” increase to help the county balance the budget. With contracts already in place, unions were under no obligation to say yes, and they didn’t.

Out of fairness and a desire not to give more employees a reason to organize, the County Council gave the same increases to workers not represented by unions.
Total cost: $5.4 million, not counting the price of “step” increases that some workers will also get.

County labor negotiators are betting on their ability to hold the line on wages in 2012, after the current more generous contracts expire.

Pierce County isn’t the only local government that has work to do to reconcile public pay with what’s been happening in the private sector over the last several years.

Sometime after the economy really turns around, employers start hiring and private companies begin handing out raises rather than reduced hours, expect to hear a hue and cry from government workers being asked to make overdue sacrifices.

The bill for surviving the worst recession in 70 years relatively unscathed will come due eventually. Elected officials better ensure it’s paid.

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