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Published: Wednesday, 4/21/2010

No time to go wobbly

BETTER late than never, some municipal workers are accepting their duty - albeit with tiny steps - to help the City of Toledo overcome a fiscal emergency that appears to be easing. But as Mayor Mike Bell's administration negotiates with unions to win temporary concessions, the city has a responsibility to taxpayers not to give away too much too quickly.

Members of the largest city union, Local 7 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, voted this week to approve an agreement that will require them to pay 3 percent of the cost of their pensions for the rest of the year. The city previously picked up the total cost of employees' 10-percent contributions to their pension plans - an anachronism that needs to go away for good - on top of the 19.5 percent share that state law requires the city to pay.

The agreement is far more generous to AFSCME workers than the city's previous declaration of "exigent circumstances," which imposed unilateral contract changes that would have forced employees to pay their full 10-percent share through Dec. 31. Nor does it require them to pay more for their health insurance, another condition of the emergency declaration enacted by City Council.

Yesterday, the union that represents the city's fire chiefs approved an agreement similar to the new AFSCME deal. Council members approved both agreements.

Mayor Bell insisted he needed the savings from the exigent circumstances declaration - prompted by an unforeseen plunge in tax revenue - to eliminate a projected deficit, balance the city budget, and avert major layoffs. The city will save roughly $500,000 less from the AFSCME agreement than it would have from the initial declaration. Administration officials say they can find that money elsewhere, although they are vague about the source.

That isn't reassuring. Since it took office in January, the Bell administration has been admirably candid about city government's fiscal condition and hardheaded about the means needed to deal with it. Those measures include higher taxes and fees for Toledoans, along with big spending cuts.

The mayor also properly has demanded financial sacrifices from city workers, since employee pay and benefits account for nearly four-fifths of the city budget. So Toledo taxpayers must hope that the administration is not engaging in wishful thinking or magical accounting to buy labor peace now that could bring a big bill - including new taxes - later on.

Before the exigent circumstances declaration took effect, the city reached an agreement with the firefighters' union similar to the AFSCME deal. Firefighters also will temporarily pay the 3-percent pension contribution, but with this key difference: If voters approve Issue 5 on next month's ballot, which would authorize the city to shift millions of dollars from its capital budget to its general fund, the firefighters will get that money back. That's even less of a concession.

Members of the city police officers' union could have had the same sweetheart deal, but rejected it. The union lost another bid this week to persuade a Lucas County judge to throw out the exigent circumstances declaration. Still, Mayor Bell says the union leadership has refused even to take his latest concessions proposal to the rank and file. It's getting hard to tell where militancy ends and denial of reality begins.

Before Local 7 cut its deal with the city, AFSCME proposed to the local AFL-CIO that the group of unions impose a lifetime ban on endorsing Council members who voted for the exigent circumstances declaration. This attempt at intimidation would be an even greater miscalculation.

The AFL-CIO represents many area private-sector workers who have had to take pay and benefit concessions during this deep recession that are far in excess of anything the city has imposed on or negotiated with its unions. If such workers are Toledoans who are paying higher taxes for reduced services, solidarity with better-paid public employees may not be uppermost in their minds.

More broadly, any effort to punish elected officials for acting on behalf of all citizens instead of a politically powerful special interest would be seen as what it is: a crude threat not only to these officials, but to their constituents as well.

Instead of making threats, unions and the Bell administration need to agree on reasonable measures to contain personnel costs with an eye to what the city - and taxpayers - can afford. Unions are not likely to adopt a sense of realism on the matter if the administration wavers from its own tough but fair stance.



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