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Published: Sunday, 2/28/2010

Union label: 'No!'

THE City of Toledo might want to start compensating its employees with IOUs, to show the link between its fiscal emergency and its ability to meet its payroll. Even then, though, it's doubtful its municipal unions would be able - or, more likely, willing - to absorb the message.

One more time: City government faces a projected deficit of $48 million within this year's general fund of about $236 million. The city must cut spending and operate more efficiently wherever it can. But Mayor Mike Bell has argued repeatedly - and correctly - that the city can't bridge its yawning revenue gap without wrecking essential services unless taxpayers and municipal workers alike make painful sacrifices now.

To that end, the mayor has asked city unions to reopen their contracts and agree to new concessions on pension and health-insurance costs. At the same time, he has voluntarily withdrawn his earlier proposal that city employees take a 10-percent pay cut.

Late last week, several unions responded to that extended hand of conciliation with a lunge that might get a "pit bull" put to death in Lucas County. Their intransigence would bring tears of appreciation to the eyes of the most obstructionist Republican in Congress.

In an essay on the opposite page, the attorney for the Toledo police and fire unions asserts that not only should those unions' members not be expected to bear more of the cost of their pension contributions that the city now picks up, but also that police officers and firefighters deserve a raise.

The argument: (1) Comparable Ohio cities pay their uniformed employees more, and (2) Toledo's police and fire unions already have agreed to major givebacks. The city's current ability, or inability, to pay evidently is not a consideration. The mayor's dire deficit projection is merely "purported."

Union leaders say the city's economy is poised to recover more quickly than the mayor assumes. Does that expectation reflect the present experience of most Toledoans?

They also contend that negotiations with city officials aimed at concessions remain premature. The city must enact a balanced budget next month. City voters must decide in early May on a ballot question that is crucial to the city's ability to maintain its budget. When will the time be right to start talking?

Both sides agree that further layoffs are not a desirable option. The mayor and unions note that the number of police officers and firefighters per 1,000 residents is smaller in Toledo than in any of Ohio's other urban centers. But without some action on personnel costs, layoffs can't be ruled out.

It would help if Mayor Bell did not have to wage this battle alone. City Council members who have been far more willing to proclaim what they are against than what they are for should get behind the mayor's budget proposals or offer better ones.

Another option, of course, is some sort of receivership if the city cannot balance its budget. Such a takeover would empower unelected bureaucrats in Columbus to impose decisions about many things - including labor contracts - that now are made locally.

That loss of sovereignty wouldn't be good for Toledoans, including city workers. But in the game of brinkmanship and posturing and who-blinks-first, the overall interests of the city are coming a distant second.



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