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Tuesday, September 02, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 3/28/2010

Public servants

INCREDIBLY, Toledo police would rather risk the layoffs of more than 20 percent of their brother and sister officers than accept pay “concessions” so minuscule that they represented an embarrassing surrender by Mayor Mike Bell's administration to the police union.

Employee pay and benefits account for nearly four-fifths of the $233 million city budget, which has a $25 million hole — down from a previous $48 million — that must be plugged within days. Yet most municipal unions have made clear they will concede neither the reality of the city's fiscal crisis nor their responsibility to help resolve it.

And they won't until Mr. Bell forces them to. So it is past time for the mayor to stop lobbing softballs at the unions and get into the game of hardball that they are bringing.

Mayor Bell has said that he wants city employees, union and nonunion, to pay the costs of their own 10-percent contributions to their pension plans. Toledo now picks up those costs — an aberration among major Ohio cities — in addition to the 19.5-percent share of pension plan costs it is required to pay. The mayor also wants city workers to pay 20 percent of the costs of their health-insurance premiums.

Neither of these proposals is likely to seem onerous to Toledo's private-sector workers, much less to those who are jobless during this persistent recession. But the deal police officers rejected late last week would not have required even that much.

Instead, officers would have had to pay just 3 percent of their pension plan costs, and for just nine months. They would have had to defer some overtime pay until next year. Their health-care costs would not have increased. These tiny gestures would have been enough for Mayor Bell to call off his threat to lay off 125 officers.

This was still too much for the officers who trashed the proposal. A reality check is in order, and only the mayor can provide it.

He made a good start by rejecting a union request for what he called a do-over vote, which would have been futile. Now he can reissue the 125 layoff notices he rescinded this month when there appeared to be progress in negotiations with the police union. This time, those notices need to remain in effect until the union agrees to a comparable amount of permanent budget savings — slightly more than $4 million — to what the city would gain from the layoffs.

Perhaps the officers who voted against the contract revisions believe the mayor wouldn't dare go through with the layoffs that they are forcing. Are they right?

For better or worse, city fire fighters accepted a sweetheart deal nearly identical to the one that police officers turned down, to avert similar threatened layoffs. That's OK, but it might have gone down easier if the president of the firefighters' union had not described the vote in terms that suggested he was accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.

The mayor has talked about declaring “exigent circumstances” — in essence, an emergency that would enable him to impose unilaterally the changes he seeks in employee benefits. City unions almost surely would sue to block such a move, alleging contract violations, but that shouldn't stop the mayor.

A bigger obstacle, though, is that it would require the support of City Council, which has run away and hid from the fiscal emergency all year, even though it must enact a balanced budget this week. Don't look for leadership now.

As negotiations with other city bargaining units drag on, Mr. Bell might even want to get their attention by dusting off his earlier proposal that all city employees take a 10-percent pay cut. The mayor unilaterally withdrew that proposal to jump-start union negotiations. Obviously it didn't work.

Toledo voters will decide May 4 whether to allow the city to transfer money from its capital budget to its general fund to help erase the deficit. That ballot plan had seemed uncontroversial, since it would not require a tax increase, even though it might mean that some potholes would take longer to fix.

You have to wonder, though, whether the police officers' obstructionism might cause city voters to reconsider that request now, since the bulk of the shifted money would go to police and fire salaries, as well as defraying the firefighters' new pension costs.

The mayor also still wants Toledoans to pay a new tax on the tickets they buy to sports and entertainment events, and to pay more to have their trash collected. He still plans to eliminate the tax credit for Toledo residents who work and pay taxes elsewhere.

Each of these revenue-raising measures has problems. Yet instead of working to improve them or offer better ideas, council members continue to do no more than snipe at or seek to water down the mayor's proposals.

Since he took office in January, Mayor Bell has insisted that returning Toledo to solvency would require meaningful action on three fronts: tax increases, spending cuts, and givebacks from municipal employees. There would be pain, he warned, but everyone would share it.

The incessant response from most city unions: Not us. Mayor Bell must make clear — to the unions and all Toledoans — that such intransigence is intolerable.



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