THE City of Toledo is legally required to pay 19.5 percent of the cost of its employees' retirement plans. As a result of past agreements with municipal unions, it also picks up the cost of many workers' own 10-percent contributions to their pensions. City taxpayers subsidize this shift.
"Pension pickup" is unusual among large Ohio cities. It is expensive, costing the city a projected $13.9 million this year. And it masks the true cost of city employees' compensation.
Toledo Mayor Mike Bell wants to ask city voters to decide whether pension pickups should be allowed or eliminated in future union contracts. Whatever City Council members think about the proposal, they should agree to place it on this year's general election ballot and enable Toledoans to choose for themselves.
"People want a say in what public employees receive," the mayor says. "Let's let them vote in November."
Mr. Bell's effort to suspend pension pickups during the city's budget crisis earlier this year brought him into fierce conflict with unions that resisted any change to the practice. Since then, members of most city unions have grudgingly agreed to pay just a small share of their pension costs, and only for the rest of this year.
Firefighters will be repaid for their contributions. Unions representing police officers and commanders continue to reject any concession on the pension issue. The patrolman's union seeks court action to halt what it calls the city's unfair labor practices.
Union leaders argue that they negotiated pension pickups in lieu of higher base salaries for their members. They assert the practice saves the city money, since higher salaries also boost the costs of overtime, pensions, and taxes. Because many newly hired employees are not eligible for pension pickups, they say the issue will largely resolve itself in a few years.
If voters were to end the practice, unions surely would seek pay hikes to make up for the increased cost to their members of pension contributions. And that's appropriate, consistent with the city's ability to pay. In any event, the cost of such increases would be more transparent to taxpayers than the current arrangement.
As they enacted this year's budget, most council members voted to grant the mayor's request to declare a fiscal emergency and require city employees temporarily to make their own pension contributions. So far, though, members are hedging on whether they will support Mr. Bell's proposal for a pension-pickup ballot issue.
Even for a legislative body not noted for decisive action, the choice shouldn't be all that tough. Let city taxpayers help decide how they want their tax dollars spent? Why not?